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Colo. DA hasn't made death penalty decision in Chris Watts case; capital punishment in Colo. is rare

The jury is out as to whether the Colorado district attorney will pursue the death penalty for Chris Watts, who stands accused of murdering his wife, daughters, and unborn son. (RJ Sangosti - Pool/Getty Images)

District Attorney Michael Rourke has yet to make a decision as to whether to push for the death penalty in the case of Chris Watts, the 33-year-old Colorado man who stands accused of three counts of first-degree murder and one felony count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy.

What's the background?

Police charged Chris Watts with the felonies after his wife Shanann — who was 15 weeks pregnant with the couple’s third child — disappeared along with the couple's 3- and 4-year-old daughters.

Shanann returned home to Frederick, Colorado, from a business trip in the early hours of Aug. 13. Upon her return, the couple reportedly held an emotional conversation about the status of their marriage. During the conversation, Chris Watts reportedly told his wife that he no longer wanted to be married.

Local police performed a welfare check on Shanann and her young daughters after the 34-year-old mother didn’t show up for a 1:30 p.m. doctor’s appointment.

Just one day later, police arrested Watts and took him into custody. The day after, investigators discovered Shanann’s body buried in the ground at a petroleum company where he worked. Law enforcement officials also found the bodies of the couple's children, Celeste and Bella.

In an unsealed court affidavit, police alleged that Watts was having an affair — a claim he initially denied. Watts admitted to killing his wife in a fit of rage after he said she had strangled their daughters after he revealed he wanted a divorce.

Watts has been incarcerated at the Weld County Jail, and awaits a Nov. 19 status conference.

You can read more on the background of the case here.

What's happening now?

According to a Friday report in the Greeley Tribune, Rourke is undecided on whether to seek the death penalty in the Watts case.

Krista Henery, a spokesperson for the Weld County District Attorney's Office, said that it was simply too early in the process for Rourke to determine such a fate, and people will likely hear more about this later, in 2019, rather than sooner.

"We're talking many months before [Rourke] will make or announce that decision," Henery said.

With Watts' next hearing scheduled for Nov. 19, it seems unlikely that Rourke will announce anything regarding a capital punishment decision, as Colorado law mandates that a  district attorney has 63 days from the date of an arraignment to pursue such punishments.

What's the deal with Colorado and capital punishment?

In 1974, a measure to reinstate capital punishment was approved.

Since then, just one person — in 1997 — has been subjected to the death penalty in Colorado. Gary Davis was the first Colorado inmate to be executed in a period of 30 years after the rape and murder of his neighbor, Virginia May. At the time of this writing, three Colorado inmates are on death row.

The state has executed 103 people since 1859. Not even Aurora, Colorado, movie theater mass murderer James Holmes received the death penalty, and instead, will remain behind bars for the rest of his life after executing more than 12 people and injuring many more.

The Tribune reported that Arapahoe County spent about $1.9 million to prosecute Holmes. The Denver Post estimated that the Holmes trial likely cost taxpayers between $3 million and $3.5 million.

The outlet also noted that Don Warden, who is the director of the Weld County Finance and Administration Office, said that Weld County could absorb what the outlet describes as "reasonable requests for additional resources" if the D.A. decided to seek the death penalty in the Watts case.

For Colorado's legal system, the jury is told to consider any mitigating or aggravating factors in a crime, such as the defendant's prior criminal history, committing a crime in front of a child, a lack of remorse, whether the defendant was under duress or suffering from mental illness — such as was determined in the case of Holmes — while carrying out the crime, and more.

Former former Weld District Attorney Al Dominguez told the outlet, "I'm sure [Rourke] is going through a similar process as he tries to determine over the next couple of months if the case is aggravating enough to seek the death penalty."

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