Christopher Watts, Shannan Watts and daughters Celeste and Bella Watts (The Colorado Bureau of Investigation)
(AP) - As the sentencing hearing for a Frederick man who pleaded guilty last week in the murders of his pregnant wife and children approaches, experts agree that Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke made the right decision in not pursuing the death penalty in the case.
Christopher Watts, 33, was accused of killing his pregnant wife, 34-year-old Shanann Watts, and two daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. On Nov. 6, he pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder, three counts of tampering with a deceased human body and unlawful termination of a pregnancy, as Shanann Watts was 15 weeks pregnant with a son. Her family said he would have been named Nico.
Chris Watts is scheduled to be sentenced Monday in Weld County District Court.
By not pursuing the death penalty, Rourke saved the family of Shanann Watts years spent wrapped up in the criminal justice system, as well as millions of dollars for taxpayers, according to Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado and author of “The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado.”
“Even if Mr. Watts would have been executed, it still would not have repaired the damage he did to those three people and their families,” Radelet said.
At a news conference following the court hearing where Watts pleaded guilty to the crime, Rourke said he flew to North Carolina in October to speak with Shanann Watts’ family after the defense approached him with a plea deal. Rourke said at the conference he was willing to negotiate the removal of the death penalty, but he would not drop any of the charges lodged against Watts.
Rourke said he told Shanann Watts’ family the difficulties that could come with pursuing the death penalty, including years spent in court on not only the trial, but also appeals. Her family said they did not want to pursue that option.
“I’m not the district attorney, but I would bet that this decision was one of the most difficult decisions the district attorney has ever made,” Radelet said. “But I think the decision that he made spared the family of the victims lots of pain for many, many years.”
Even had Rourke pursued the death penalty, Watts may still have wound up serving a life sentence.
In Colorado, one person has been executed in the last 50 years in the state, according to Radelet. For homicides committed in the 2000s, he said there have been two dozen death penalty prosecutions, but only two have resulted in death sentences. A third case is still pending, and the rest resulted in life sentences or less.
“So it’s not a very good hit record,” Radelet said. Once someone is sentenced, he said they should expect to be on death row for at least 20 years before they are executed.
Of the two death row inmates in Colorado, one was sentenced in 2008 and the other was sentenced in 2010. Those convictions are still being examined by trial courts, Radelet said, and may still face appeal.
While it’s possible Rourke could have won the death penalty in this case, it’s becoming increasingly difficult across the state and nation to even fill a jury for death penalty cases. Prospective jurors are asked if they support the death penalty, and Radelet said about 50 percent of people in the country are against it when given the option of life without parole.
“That’s part of why death penalty trials are so timely and so costly,” Radelet said.
Stan Garnett, former Boulder County District Attorney and an attorney at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Denver, also said there are benefits to avoiding a trial in cases like this. If the prosecution can secure a sentencing agreement of life imprisonment without parole, it saves taxpayer money and is easier on the victims’ families.
“I think it’s a just result to an incredibly tragic case, where three people lost their lives and it’s awful,” Garnett said.