By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve on Wednesday to the state's longest-serving death row inmate, ordering his execution blocked indefinitely in a move that infuriated prosecutors and victims' families.
"It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives," Hickenlooper, a first-term Democrat, wrote in his executive order, issued in response to a request for clemency from condemned quadruple killer Nathan Dunlap.
Dunlap, 39, who has been confined to Colorado's death row for 17 years, was scheduled to be executed in August by lethal injection.
His lawyers had asked that Dunlap's death sentence be permanently commuted to life in prison without parole.
Hickenlooper called his order a "temporary reprieve," noting the decision left open the possibility for a future governor to rescind it and allow the execution to move forward.
"I think it's highly unlikely that I will revisit it," said Hickenlooper, who is up for re-election next year.
Hickenlooper said he met with the families of Dunlap's victims before issuing the order and that the consensus among them was "disappointment."
Bob Crowell, whose 19-year-old daughter, Sylvia, was among those slain, accused the governor of playing politics with the death penalty.
"I think it stinks," Crowell told Reuters. "He (Hickenlooper) has not listened to the victims."
Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting to death four workers at a suburban Denver pizza restaurant where he had recently been fired.
He has run out of formal appeals, although his attorneys and others have filed lawsuits seeking to halt the execution.
Dunlap's attorney, Phil Cherner, said he was "heartened" by the governor's decision.
"It is a powerful statement against the death penalty. It cannot be administered fairly and needs to be done away with," Cherner said.
He added that he broke the news to Dunlap, who he said "continues to be remorseful" for the killings.
In their clemency petition, Dunlap's lawyers said their client suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness for which he had only been diagnosed recently.
But prosecutors said Dunlap deserved to be put to death for the slaying of three teenagers and their 50-year-old manager, who were shot execution-style after pleading for their lives. A fifth victim who survived the shootings implicated Dunlap in the crime.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose predecessor prosecuted the case, blasted the governor for granting what he called "clemency light" to a cold-blooded killer.
"There's going to be one person in the system who will go to bed tonight with a smile on his face, and that's Nathan Dunlap," Brauchler said. "And he's got one person to thank for that smile, and it's Governor John Hickenlooper."
It was unclear what effect, if any, the reprieve would have on two more inmates now on Colorado's death row, or on other cases in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, including that of accused movie theater gunman James Holmes.
Legal analysts called the reprieve a victory for death penalty foes because it cast further doubt on the future of capital punishment in a state that has executed just one inmate in 46 years.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican and possible gubernatorial candidate, said the governor should not have allowed his "personal discomfort" with capital punishment to halt the execution.
"The governor is certainly entitled to these views, but granting a reprieve simply means that his successor will have to make the tough choice that he cannot," Suthers said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)