Vail Daily editorial: An odd election issue

There are just three men on Colorado’s death row, but don’t be surprised if the death penalty becomes a significant part of this fall’s gubernatorial campaign.

Gov. John Hickenlooper brought attention to the issue in May 2013 when he indefinitely delayed the execution of Nathan Dunlap, a man convicted of the brutal murder of four people at a Denver-area restaurant in 1993. Hickenlooper’s delay applies as long as he’s governor, meaning he made the literal life-or-death decision some future governor’s problem.

Campaign ads for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez have already raised the subject, and we expect it to become a more prominent part of the challenger’s case against the incumbent.

Hickenlooper picked up the political football this week, while claiming an attempt to deflate said ball. A yet-to-be-broadcast interview with CNN seems to imply that if defeated in November, Hickenlooper may grant clemency to Dunlap — who would remain in prison.

Colorado as a state is ambivalent about the death penalty. There’s been just one execution in the state since the penalty was reinstated in 1977, and, as previously mentioned, today there are just three men awaiting society’s ultimate punishment. There could be a fourth, if prosecutors get their way in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. (We’re purposely not naming the defendant in that case. If it’s notoriety he was seeking, he won’t get it here.)

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The reason our state executes so few prisoners is that death penalty cases are complicated and expensive, often taxing district attorney’s offices beyond their human and budgetary limits.

That’s appropriate, we think. So why have a death penalty at all? Coloradans tend to believe, and we agree, that there are crimes so heinous that a civilized society has the right, and obligation, to mete out that ultimate penalty as a matter of justice for both the victims’ families and the population as a whole.

Don Quick, the Democratic candidate for Colorado attorney general, shares this view — we haven’t yet talked to Republican Cynthia Coffman, the other candidate for the position. A member of Quick’s staff was murdered while he was a district attorney, presumably as retribution. That case still hasn’t been solved, but Quick made clear that he’d favor a death penalty prosecution if the killer is ever brought to trial and convicted.

This newspaper endorsed current 5th Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown’s 2012 opponent, Scott Turner, in part because Brown opposes the death penalty. In an interview, Brown quickly said he wouldn’t have pursued the death penalty in the theater shooting case. We disagreed then and still do.

The point here isn’t whether Colorado needs to become Texas, which regularly uses the death penalty. The point is whether our state really means it when we do decide ­— through the work of attorneys, judges and two sets of jurors — that someone has committed a crime for which his or her life should be forfeit.

This year’s governor’s race, at least in part, may substitute for a true referendum on the subject.

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