A Letter to Gov. Hickenlooper

A Letter to Gov. Hickenlooper… 

Dear Gov. Hickenlooper,

I know this letter is unlikely to reach you personally, but I hope a staffer reads and conveys that part of my message that persuades you to abolish capital punishment in Colorado. In the meantime, I fervently hope you will commute the sentence of Nathan Dunlap to life imprisonment. And, if the wheels of government cannot turn fast enough for the abolition of the death penalty in time, I hope you will decide on principle to commute the sentences of Mssrs. Owens, Ray, and (should it come down to it) Holmes. I ask you to abolish, in honor of Colorado Chief and Director of Prisons, Tom Clements, who publically stood against the death penalty and would not have chosen it for his murderer, Evan Ebel.

These are pretty bold actions I’m asking you to take. It’s bold to reverse a reversal: Gov. Richard Lamm returned the death penalty to Colorado in 1975. Since then, it has been used only once, in 1997, under Gov. Roy Romer. On your watch, state-sanctioned execution may be used once more, perhaps even four times more…or not ever again. The consequent moral and political legacy of either of your choices is staggering, but only one leaves a legacy capable of healing our state and our nation’s ‘blood trauma’ of recent months and years. Your actions–our actions—began this week to be observed by the rest of America for a kind of moral leadership, as Nathan Dunlap appeared in court to learn the week of his (likely?) coming death. Watching also are all societies that have given up, and perhaps outgrown, the use of retribution as an uncivilized and pointless act of despair. All of us here in Colorado, and our peers in civil societies will watch this summer to see whether his death sentence is carried out or commuted.

Colorado’s moral voice has been recognized at least as far back as Columbine, when the perpetrators of the nation’s first mass school shooting took their own lives, effectively settling the score for us without any action at all on our part. I worked in one of the hospital ERs that day, sitting with the stunned and frightened families of the wounded in surgeries just down the hall. As a mental health therapist, I still see clients devastated since that day, and others who’ve lost loved ones to violence since. I have as much anger in me for perpetrators as anybody else. But had they lived to go to trial, received death sentences and been executed, I would not feel less burdened by the weight since that day. Neither healing nor renewed strength come by revenge: only a rededication to the commonweal can approach that.

As I said, you will make a bold and powerful choice if your action changes a culture that furthers its death trauma by meting out more death.

May I ask you to step back with me to October 13, 1997 when Gary Lee Davis was executed? I recall the night as cool and crisp, as I and a group of folks stood in quiet prayer outside the Governor’s Mansion. Across the street were the marchers with ugly pictures of abortion (’Pro-Life’ sure isn’t a unifying principle for those folks). At just after ten p.m., the announcement came that Davis was dead. A cheer went up across the street. But over on our side, someone started praying the Lord’s Prayer. The next words, from a lone female voice in our crowd, startled me first for the boldness of their theological and spiritual premise, then for my own initial angry reaction to them. But my assent quickly followed. (If you please, Governor Hickenlooper, it’s relevant to know that I’d been a proponent of capital punishment–and what I liked to jokingly call ‘Capital Problem Solving’– before that autumn. It’s a good tale, how I changed, but it doesn’t matter here.) Her words concluded our evening vigil in paradox: our profound sadness and anger at two violent deaths–of murderer and victim–and still our fervent hope, embodied in our the vigil. She prayed, ‘May the spirit of Virginia May receive the spirit of Gary Lee Davis this night in reconciliation before the Lord.’

Simple, outrageous, bold. I understand this statement reflects a religious faith not shared by all Coloradans, and we do not want to live in anyone’s theocracy. But sometimes a good religious insight is worth contemplating, when it speaks truth about our ethical limits of action. With her sentence our group was confirmed in the belief that death’s horrors cannot be overcome by more of the same. A civilized people cannot go on this way. Colorado cannot but lose itself in grief if state-sanctioned death is our only hope of releasing us from our trauma. And in the end, who among us could ever wash himself clean enough in our Colorado mountain streams, had he the job of executioner?

Governor Hickenlooper, there’s little honor in this death penalty thing. You recall that World War II-era Governor Ralph Carr endured harassment and lost his chance at re-election after resisting the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans in rural Colorado. Decades later, the new State Judicial Complex in downtown Denver was named the Ralph L. Carr Justice Center, in posthumous honor of ‘The Principled Politician.’ The morally right decision is not always popular, but is always and universally recognized as praiseworthy by history.

Sir, please act boldly, and in time.


Laura A. Thor


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