Judge Denies Christopher Watts Defense Request for Investigation into Media Leaks
A Weld County judge has denied a motion to investigate media leaks in the case of Christopher Watts, who made national headlines after he was arrested last month for the murders of his wife and children.
Watts’ defense attorneys, public defenders John Walsh and Kathryn Herold, on Aug. 29 filed a motion asking the court to have “the government” investigate extrajudicial statements that could prejudice a jury in the case.
The motion included a number of news articles citing “sources close to the investigation,” including one that cites a “Frederick police source” and contains information still not available to the defense attorneys.
While the defense had not yet received any discovery by Sept. 4, “a source from the Frederick Police Department continues to feed the media materially prejudicial, extrajudicial ‘information’ about the ongoing investigation,” Walsh and Herold argued in a supplement to their motion.
Prosecutors must follow the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which forbids them from saying something outside of court that could create prejudice in a legal proceeding.
However, Weld County District Court Judge Marcelo Kopcow wrote in the denial, filed on Sept. 10, that the defense failed to show any court violations or evidence of the defendant suffering from prejudice.
Watts was arrested shortly after his wife and two daughters went missing. He is charged with five counts of first-degree murder , one count of first-degree unlawful termination of pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body.
The bodies of 34-year-old Shanann Watts, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste were found on property owned by Watts’ former employer, Anadarko Petroleum Co. Shanann Watts was 15 weeks pregnant with a boy, who her family said would be named Nico.
District Attorney Michael Rourke hasn’t violated the court order on extrajudicial statements and has taken steps to limit the spread of information as the case captured the attention of national media and armchair detectives, Kopcow states in the denial.
Still, the denial points out a specific story, “The Watts Family Murders Secrets & Lies,” that cites a “Frederick police source.” According to court documents, the source comments on Watts’ credibility and yet unmentioned physical evidence, both of which constitute a violation of court orders.
The article could not be found online, and the publisher is not named in court documents. In it, the source “asked for anonymity because the officer is not authorized to speak to the press,” according to court documents.
While it’s not proven that law enforcement made these statements, Kopcow wrote that Rourke must remind the Frederick Police Department of their obligations.
The defense is asking the court to reconsider its denial, saying in a Sept. 12 filing that the bar for taking “reasonable care” to prevent the spread of prejudicial information should be higher for a case of this nature.
Rourke has sent emails to the law enforcement agencies involved in the case asking them to refer media inquiries to his office. He also has reminded them of the court order they are bound to, but the defense argues those actions have been too generic and vague to constitute taking “reasonable care” given the nature of this case.
The defense also argues that while the court says there is no sign of a violation, it also seemed to acknowledge a potential violation when addressing the possible Frederick police leaks in its denial.
Walsh and Herold also argue that such an investigation would not be burdensome if it narrowed to the Frederick Police Department, which has less than 30 officers.
But, they argue, investigating those and other leaks also is a necessary price to pay to “preserve what is left of the possibility of affording Mr. Watts a fundamentally fair trail before a fair and impartial jury of his peers.”
Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, firstname.lastname@example.org