On November 19 Christopher Watts was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of his pregnant wife Shannan and his daughters Celeste and Bella. Watts had pleaded guilty to murder in a plea deal that saw the death penalty taken off the table. Shannan’s parents and family had also asked Weld County prosecutors not to pursue the death penalty in the case. Michael Radelet, Professor of Sociology at CU Boulder and internationally renowned death penalty researcher says that it’s not unusual for victims’ families to ask the death penalty be taken off the table, but prosecutors don’t always listen to them.
“[There’s a] pending case right now, from a town called Ordway… a prison worker [in Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility] was murdered by an inmate… the family of that victim has steadfastly rejected the death penalty, and the prosecutor has ignored that … really re-victimizing that family… six years later, it just goes on and on.”
With the Democrats having control of the State Senate and State House for the upcoming legislative session, the death penalty will be up for review in 2019. There is a bill that will be introduced in the Colorado legislature in 2019 to abolish the death penalty and Radelet says it already has strong support in the state. “Not only from regular progressive groups and church groups but also from some District Attorneys and law enforcement officers. I never would have said this before about any other death penalty bill but I think this one coming up next year has really got a shot.”
In the U.S, support for the death penalty has (at least since the 30s) been nearly always above opposition for the death penalty. Radelet says that the death penalty is not just a moral issue, there is an economic argument to be made. The cost of a death penalty trial is $3.5 million with cases taking nearly six times the amount of court days compared to life without parole cases. Many supporters of the death penalty say that its goal is to give a sense of closure to the victims’ families, but according to Radelet, that’s not always the case. In 2009 a group of Colorado families of homicide victims campaigned to abolish the death penalty and use that money to train and hire cold case investigators.
“In Colorado, 40 percent of homicide cases aren’t solved, so these families with an unsolved homicide case wanted to abolish the death penalty, not so much because they hated the death penalty, but because if the purpose of the death penalty is to help families of homicide victims, for them, solving the crime was more important than vengeance.”