A Colorado judge can schedule the state's first execution in 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal from an inmate who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993.
The high court's rejection ends Nathan Dunlap's guaranteed appeals and sends the case back to Colorado's 18th Judicial District, where a judge will set a timeframe for execution, said Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's office.
Dunlap was a 19-year-old former employee of the restaurant when he killed the night manager of the restaurant and three teenage employees. They all died from shots to the head.
Another employee was wounded but survived and identified Dunlap as the killer. A jury convicted Dunlap in 1996.
The Supreme Court's decision comes as Democrats control the state Legislature and are considering introducing a bill to abolish the death penalty.
Dunlap, 38, is one of three men on Colorado's death row.
The state's last execution was in 1997 when Gary Lee Davis was put to death for his conviction in a 1986 slaying. Before that, Colorado had gone 30 years since its last execution, in part because of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to a moratorium on the death penalty.
Colorado reinstated the death penalty in 1984. But in 2003, three inmates had their death sentences commuted to life in prison without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should impose capital punishment.
Dunlap's death sentence was handed up by a jury, which convicted him of eight counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, robbery, theft and burglary.
The Colorado Attorney General's office had opposed his appeal to the Supreme Court. His attorneys can file a motion to delay the process in Colorado and can also file a clemency application to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, asking that Dunlap's life be spared and instead that he be sentenced to life in prison, Tyler said.
Phil Cherner, Dunlap's appellate attorney since 1998, said in a statement that Dunlap should spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Given what we know about the unfair and disproportionate use of capital punishment in Colorado, it would be unconscionable for the state to carry out this sentence," he said.
Hickenlooper recently expressed his ambivalence about capital punishment.
"On the one hand... so much of our religious training teaches us forgiveness," he told Colorado Public Radio earlier this month. "But in that same sense, we have a system of laws and our community voted to support the death penalty."
"It's hard to see varying from that," he said.
District Attorney George Brauchler said in a statement Tuesday that he will continue to seek Dunlap's execution.
Former District Attorney Jim Peters, who prosecuted the case, said the execution should be carried out on behalf of the victims' families.
"The criminal justice system has provided Mr. Dunlap ample opportunity to appeal his case," he said in a statement.
All three men on death row — Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray — were convicted for crimes committed in Aurora, the scene of the July 20 theater shooting where a gunman killed 12 and injured 70 others.
Brauchler has not said whether he will seek the death penalty against suspect James Holmes.