The One Person Who Can Save James Holmes From Death

The sentencing phase of the trial of James Holmes, the young man who stormed a screening of The Dark Knight in July 2012 and opened fire, begins Wednesday, and all eyes are on the death penalty. Holmes was convicted last week on 24 counts of first-degree murder — two counts for each victim — and prosecutors are set on going after the harsh sentence. Yet there's one very important person in Colorado who may block the death penalty for James Holmes, even if the 27-year-old is sentenced to death.

Despite repeated, strong calls for Holmes' execution from survivors of the deadly July 2012 shooting, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that there's one person in Colorado who may end up saving Holmes from the lethal-injection chamber: Gov. John Hickenlooper. The Democratic governor, who's currently serving his second term, has made it clear that no one will be executed in Colorado while he's in office.

But why would Hickenlooper's personal (and political) opinion on the death penalty matter in this case, even if a jury recommends the sentence? Colorado is essentially a de facto non-capital punishment state, which means that even though capital punishment is technically on the books, it's hardly ever used and has strict, conditional guidelines. Hickenlooper must sign a so-called "death warrant" before any execution can take place.

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And the governor, who is anti-capital punishment, has made it clear in the past that he would never sign a "death warrant." In fact, Hickenlooper has even granted an "indefinite reprieve" to one mass shooter, Nathan Dunlap, according to the Los Angeles Times. It's still unclear if Hickenlooper would grant Holmes the same type of reprieve, but a "death warrant" would never make it past the governor's desk.

Although Colorado has only executed one person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1978, several mass shootings have renewed the death-penalty debate in the Centennial State. Currently, just three people, including Dunlap, who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese's in Aurora, sit on the figurative death row. (Colorado doesn't have a physical death row.)

Capital punishment became a major talking point of the 2014 gubernatorial election, where Hickenlooper was attacked by Republican challenger Bob Beauprez for indefinitely staying Dunlap's execution. But Hickenlooper, who scraped by during this last election, has refused to give up his conviction that the death penalty is arbitrary and flawed.

"If the state of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly," Hickenlooper wrote in his 2013 executive order staying Dunlap's execution. "Colorado's system for capital punishment is not flawless. ... It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives."

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