Colorado’s Death Penalty Back in the News

A murder in Weld County has once again renewed the question over whether capital punishment might be utilized in the state 

Once again, the death penalty is a topic of discussion in both legal and political circles in Colorado.

Capital punishment became a major issue in the state several years ago after James Holmes opened fire inside an Aurora movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70. Almost exactly four years later, on July 16, 2016, Holmes was found guilty on all 165 counts against him. A jury could not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence Holmes to death or life in prison, so then-Judge Carlos Samour Jr., now a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, gave him 12 life sentences.

Two weeks ago, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke announced nine charges against 33-year-old Christopher Watts, who is accused of killing his 34-year-old wife Shannon Watts and his two young daughters. The charges included three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder of a person under the age of 12 while being in a position of trust. The charges led news outlets to question whether prosecutors might seek the death penalty in the case.

Rourke, however, said at a press conference on Aug. 20 that it was “way too early to have that conversation.” The district attorney has 63 days after Watts’ arraignment to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.

There’s also the question of the fate of three men currently on death row in Colorado — Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray. Dunlap, who shot and killed four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993, was scheduled to be executed in August 2013. Three months prior to that date,  Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order granting Dunlap a temporary reprieve from execution, which remains in effect. At the time of the announcement, Hickenlooper noted in the executive order: “As Governor, I must either direct state employees to execute a human being, or I must exercise my constitutional authority to stop an execution. Both paths require an affirmative decision by me, and the prospect of either decision has been daunting. It has forced me to think of the issue in a personal way because it is on my conscience the decision will weigh. I am confident that most Coloradans — no matter what their views on the death penalty may be — will respect and understand the unique burden of this decision.”

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the September 10, 2018 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.