The Indy 500: Hickenlooper’s “statewide conversation” about the death penalty never happened

Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Democratic election night party in Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photograph by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)
Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Democratic election night party in Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photograph by Evan Semón for The Colorado Independent)

John Hickenlooper is misrepresenting his record on the death penalty.

Colorado’s former governor, one in a swelling pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls, was on CNN recently describing, among other things, his reversal from supporting to opposing capital punishment. As he has said since granting a temporary reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap in 2013, he came to see Colorado’s use of the law as flawed because the chances of a perpetrator being handed a death sentence often have a lot to do with race.

Hick started flat-out making stuff up when he went on to suggest that, as governor, he encouraged a broad dialogue about capital punishment, its effectiveness and whether it’s being meted out fairly.

“What we’ve done in Colorado is a statewide conversation on the death penalty, and I mean it doesn’t deter. I mean of the states that got rid of the death penalty 40 years ago have no more homicides or mass killings than states that execute people multiple times a year,” he said.

He has touted his role in encouraging such a “statewide conversation” in other interviews and public comments, as well.

But such a discussion never happened under Hick’s watch. Not even close.

He did call for one in 2013 while under scrutiny about his decision to grant Dunlap, the convicted Chuck E. Cheese killer, a temporary reprieve rather than commute Dunlap’s death sentence altogether. But once scrutiny blew over and Hick was re-elected a year later, he seemed to forget about the conversation he promised and clammed up about the issue during his next four years in office.

It is only now that the moderate seeking support among party progressives has chosen to speak out.

In the meantime, Dunlap and two other men remain on Colorado’s death row. All are black in a state with a 4% African-American population. And three new capital cases – each against black defendants – are at various stages of being prosecuted.

A bill to abolish the death penalty was expected to glide through this year’s Democratically controlled legislature. But it hit snags when Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, seemed to have garnered enough no-votes in her caucus to defeat it. Fields’ son was one of the victims in the 2005 murders for which Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray – the two other inmates on death row with Dunlap – have been handed death sentences.

Fields, who is black, says she’s unconcerned about the fact that African-Americans are disproportionately pursued with capital prosecutions. She told me in March that “This has nothing to do with race.”

Less than two weeks after Hick was on CNN touting a statewide come-to-Jesus about the death penalty that never happened, a repeal bill his party expected to easily pass was pulled from consideration in a bitterly divided state Senate without even a floor debate.

Hickenlooper was, to be clear, no protagonist in Colorado’s growing abolition movement, but rather a passive player who punted on an issue that he seems to care about only when it’s politically convenient.

The Indy 500 is a new opinion feature coming to you three times a week from The Colorado Independent’s staff. Subscribe here and get it three times a week along with the weekend news digest. 



  1. Pretty consitent anti death penalty govs

    Calornia’s Newsom pron=mised he would honor citizens pro death penalty votes and not rule by fiat.

    He lied.

    Illinois felony Gov Ryan promised he woudn’t vacate Illinois death row.

    He lied.

  2. If I could choose only one word to describe Hickenlooper, it would be ‘passive’. He is a nice guy but that does not a president make.

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