Shanann Watts case: Will Chris Watts face death penalty in deaths of wife, 2 daughters?

As Shanann Watts' family and friends prepare to bury her and her two small children Saturday in her native North Carolina, the Colorado prosecutors tasked with trying her husband for their slayings is still weighing whether Christopher Watts, if convicted, should pay for the crimes with his life.

If Weld County, Colorado, District Attorney Michael Rourke opts to seek the death penalty, Chris Watts’ fate will ultimately lie in the hands of jurors. The 33-year-old is facing nine felony charges: Three counts of first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree murder of a child under the age of 12 by a person in a position of trust with respect to the victim, one count of unlawful termination of pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body.

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Rourke, in announcing the charges during an Aug. 20 news conference, said his office had not yet decided what punishment to seek.

“(It is) way too early to have that conversation,” Rourke said.

Colorado law gives prosecutors up to 63 days after a defendant's arraignment to determine if the death penalty will be sought. According to The Coloradoan, Chris Watts' arraignment has not yet been scheduled.

Rourke would not say whether he was considering capital punishment in the Watts case.

Chris Watts is accused of strangling his daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, either Aug. 12 or 13 in the family’s Frederick home. He is accused of doing the same to Shanann Watts, 34, after she returned home from a business trip around 2 a.m. Aug. 13.

Shanann Watts was about 15 weeks pregnant when she died. She planned to name the baby, a boy, Niko.

>> Related story: Shanann Watts’ girls may have been dead when she got home, husband’s charges show

The defendant told investigators in an alleged confession that his wife strangled the girls around 4 a.m. Aug. 13 after he asked for a separation. He claimed he then strangled Shanann Watts in a fit of rage.

He admitted burying her body in a shallow grave at an oil tank battery belonging to his employer about 60 miles from the family’s home. Bella and Celeste’s bodies were found in two nearby oil tanks, submerged in crude oil.

Which of Watts’ alleged crimes are eligible for capital punishment?

According to Colorado law, five of the nine charges against Chris Watts -- the five first-degree murder charges – are Class 1 felonies and make him eligible for either life in prison or a death sentence, if convicted. To seek death, prosecutors must show that the crime included at least one aggravating factor.

The aggravating factors must also outweigh the mitigating factors in the defendant's favor, the law states.

First-degree unlawful termination of a pregnancy is a Class 3 felony, but is bumped up to a Class 2 felony if the woman dies as a result of that termination, Colorado law states.

Class 2 felonies carry sentences of between eight and 24 years in prison.

Tampering with a deceased human body is a Class 3 felony, punishable by between four and 12 years in prison, the statute states.

The death penalty in Colorado

The Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that provides the public with information on capital punishment throughout the U.S., reported that the first legal execution in Colorado was in 1859, when John Stoefel was hanged. The Denver Post reported that Stoefel was condemned for killing his brother-in-law two days earlier.

Just 102 other convicted inmates have been put to death in Colorado. Only one person, Gary Lee Davis, has been executed there since Colorado reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

Davis was executed by lethal injection in October 1997 for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of 33-year-old Virginia May, who was abducted from near her home in Byers. The Post reported that she was shot 14 times with a .22-caliber rifle.

The Death Penalty Information Center's website reports that just three people currently sit on Colorado's death row, none of them women. In one of those cases, that of Nathan Dunlap, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an indefinite stay of execution in 2013, citing his doubts about the fairness of Colorado's death penalty.

The fate of Dunlap, who was condemned in the 1996 killings of four people inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, remains in limbo.

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