By Stan Bush
GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) – Chris Watts pleaded guilty to murdering his pregnant wife and their two young daughters in court on Tuesday afternoon. The agreement means he avoids the death penalty, something the district attorney said would be difficult because of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s previous actions.
Watts is accused of killing his wife, Shanann, and his two young daughters, Bella and Celeste at their home in Frederick. Shanann was pregnant with their third child, a son, who they had planned to name Nico.
Watts, 33, reached a plea deal Tuesday afternoon. By pleading guilty to all nine charges against him, he avoids the death penalty.
The family of Shanann Watts told Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke they did not want to pursue the death penalty against Christopher Watts.
“[We] spent quite a bit of time with [Shanann’s family] talking about the state of the death penalty in Colorado, the realities of the death penalty, we explained to them the extraordinary delays that currently exist in the State of Colorado, as a result of, in part, the actions of our current governor. We discussed the fact than an individual by the name Nathan Dunlap was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 and is still alive today,” Rourke stated Tuesday.
“They were very strongly favor of a resolution in this case short of the death penalty. That to me, was the most important consideration,” Rourke stated. “You do what the victims’ family wants you to do in this case.”
On Aug. 20, he was formally charged with five counts of murder in the first degree, one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body.
The district attorney eliminated the death penalty from consideration in exchange for pleading guilty to all nine counts. The agreement assures that Watts will serve each sentence consecutively.
Shanann’s family, including parents Frank Rzucek and Sandra Onorati Rzucek and her brother Frankie Rzucek, was at the news conference where Rourke discussed the plea agreement. They were also in the courtroom when Watts make his guilty pleas.
They did not speak at the Tuesday news conference but may decide to testify with victim’s impact statements at Watts sentencing on Nov. 19.
Rourke mentioned the decades worth of appeals Watts would be allowed to make before the sentence was carried out and the uncertainty that follows execution cases given a governor’s right to commute the sentence.
In a moment that seemed almost like a political speech, Rourke blasted outgoing Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) for commuting Nathan Dunlap’s execution. Rourke referenced the case by implying that a death penalty conviction may not be final.
“We have a governor in office right now who understandably, we have an election going on today, he is term limited. We have a governor who has refused to make a decision when it relates to Nathan Dunlap. I explained that to the Rzucek family and obviously that gives them some pause, when I’m asking them to endure a four or five year delay prior to a trial, and many more years of that of appeals, and post conviction hearings before that sentence could ever possibly be imposed.”
Securing a death penalty case is the highest bar in Colorado’s criminal justice system and requires a unanimous jury decision. In 2015, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler failed to convict James Holmes, the Aurora theater gunman, to death when a lone juror refused to approve of execution.
“It’s a political stunt,” said Hickenlooper when asked about Rourke’s statements. “It’s Election Day, I get it. But you know, when I started, I was for the death penalty. But when you get the facts, right, you see how much it costs, over $15 million per case, when you see how it prolongs the suffering and the agony of the families of victims, when you see that it’s no deterrent, right. It doesn’t matter which state got rid of the death penalty like 50 years ago, they don’t have any more murders, no more mass murders, no more grisly murders, it doesn’t deter any more homicides. And then lastly the death penalty is dependent upon who the district attorney is. So, you commit the same crime in two different places and one you get the death penalty, one you don’t. And the death penalty is final. It should be the absolute closest to justice you can get and it’s actually the farthest away. He can say whatever he wants, let’s get out the pitchforks and go to it but I think he was just making politics.”
Investigators say Watts killed his family and then dumped their bodies on the property belonging to an oil company. Watts had worked for that company until the allegations arose.
The girls’ bodies were found in oil barrels and Shanann’s body was found in a shallow grave nearby.
The family’s autopsy reports were never released, but a judge did deny a request to seal them.