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Colorado governor defends death sentence comment as 'hypothetical'

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said on Tuesday that he was responding to a hypothetical question when he raised the possibility of granting clemency to the state's longest-serving death row inmate should he lose his re-election bid in November.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a yet-to-be aired interview with CNN that he could consider commuting the death sentence of Nathan Dunlap, whose execution the governor indefinitely blocked last year, if Republicans make it a campaign issue.

“If that (death penalty) becomes a political issue, in that context within a campaign, obviously there’s a period of time between the election and the end of the year where individuals can make decisions, such as a governor can,” the governor told the CNN interviewer.  “I could give ... a full clemency.”

An audio recording of the interview was first posted by the conservative news website Complete Colorado, which said it was obtained under an open-records request.

Dunlap, 40, was set to be executed by lethal injection last year before Hickenlooper intervened, granting the convicted quadruple murderer an open-ended “temporary reprieve.”

Hickenlooper’s campaign spokesman, Eddie Stern, said in a statement that the governor has no plans to revisit the issue.

“In this interview and in response to that specific line of hypothetical questioning, he is discussing the legal options that are provided in the state’s constitution,” he said, adding "No matter what, Nathan Dunlap will die in prison."

The governor's Republican challenger, former congressman Bob Beauprez, has vowed to sign Dunlap’s death warrant if he unseats Hickenlooper. 

The first-term governor is locked in a close race with Beauprez, whose campaign has focused on assertions that Hickenlooper is a weak leader unwilling to make tough decisions.

Beauprez blasted the governor over his comments about Dunlap.

“It’s outrageous that now John Hickenlooper is threatening to give a convicted mass murderer full clemency if people vote against him,” he said in a statement. 

Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting to death four workers at a pizza restaurant where he had recently been fired.

After exhausting all state and federal appeals, Dunlap’s lawyers appealed to Hickenlooper to commute his death sentence to life without parole, arguing that Dunlap suffers from bipolar disorder.

Hickenlooper instead issued the reprieve, leaving open the possibility that his successor could allow the execution to go forward.

Colorado has three inmates on death row, and the state has executed just one inmate in 47 years.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman from Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

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