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Chris Watts: Here’s what to expect from today’s Sentencing Hearing

Whether it’s a British or American court, the format in a sentencing hearing is pretty much stock standard. In broad strokes, the sentencing hearing is really a conversation about aggravating and mitigating factors [and in that order], and whether there are any substantial and compelling factors that cause a court to deviate one way or the other in sentencing. Should the sentence be more severe or should the court use its discretion and be lenient. But there’s more to it than just a tug-of-war between aggravation and mitigation.

Here’s what else to expect from today’s sentencing hearing at 10:00 [some have reported a 10:30 start] in the Weld County Court, in Greeley Colorado.

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  1. The sentencing hearing has been set for two hours, starting at 10:00 and finishing before 13:00 with possibly a recess halfway through. A press conference will be held afterwards at 13:00 with the Weld County District Attorney’s Office. The proceeding will be held in a larger court than the previous hearings already held in this case. This is in order to accommodate both the defendant’s and the victim’s loved one’s, family and friends, multiple witnesses representing each side as well as the media [who have been permitted expanded media coverage]. It has already been announced that the court proceedings have been moved from division 17 to the larger division 16, and that “overflow” facilities will be made available to extended family, the media the public. Follow the live feed at this link.
  2. images (1)It’s also likely to be held in the newer complex, rather than the old pillared building.
  3. There will be no jury present.
  4. Judge Kopcow will consider the evidence in the case, and hear the prosecutor [Michael Rourke] and his submissions on whether Chris Watts has had any priors. According to his mother he has [or had] a single traffic fine for speeding.
  5. There will also be evidence led on whether Watts was the primary offender in this case, or whether he had an accessory. This is a potential stumbling block if Watts decides to change his mind. His initial version was that the victim was an accessory, though not in the usual sense of the word.
  6. The serious nature of the crime in terms of the respective victims will be outlined. The autopsy evidence may be referenced here to reinforce the injuries and suffering of all three victims, and possibly Niko as well.
  7. In line with this, the prosecutor will specify if there was any unusual cruelty involved in the commission of the various acts. In this respect he may refer to contusions, defensive wounds as well as the heartless disposal of all the remains.
  8. The prosecutor will probably make a case for premeditation. Once again, this may involve referencing specific evidence, and if available, the autopsies my show a significant span of time separating the time of death between one victim and the others. If the autopsy results cannot be relied on in this sense, it’s possible other data might, including evidence such as microscopic human tissue and/or cadaver traces [and odor] left at the scene. Premeditation obviously goes to the calculated, cold-bloodedness of a crime.
  9. The court will consider whether the defendant destroyed evidence, whether he took the court [and/or law enforcement] into his confidence, or whether he attempted to misdirect, mislead or cover-up his crime in some way.
  10. The court will consider whether or not the defendant expressed any genuine remorse.

In the Jodi Arias trial, when Judge K. Stephens announced her judgment on the sentence, Jodi’s mother petitioned on her behalf, and Jodi petitioned at some length for herself.  A lot of baby pictures were presented to curry sympathy, and these were actually on-screen when the Judge pronounced sentence.

Judge Stephens was clear in noting Jodi’s “expressed remorse” which, given the sentence [life without parole] shows the Judge didn’t believe it was genuine or a mitigating factor, whatsoever, especially given the cruelty of the Arias’ act against the victim in that case, Travis Alexander.

In terms of Aggravation:

Expect a lot of emotion in this aspect of the trial. Family members, both parents, and Shan’ann’s brother will make statements about the emotional, financial, psychological and spiritual impact of the murders on each of them personally. Shan’ann’s health issues [lupus, fibromyalgia and her pregnancy] may be raised as an aggravating issue in the sense that her compromised condition made her more vulnerable

There may be an attempt to show Chris Watts’ lack of remorse or honesty toward’s the victim’s family following the crime.

Nickole Atkinson will possibly be called to testify in aggravation, including about Watts’ lack of remorse at the scene. Ditto one or both of the Thayers. However given the time constraint, and thus far no motions have been led indicating they will be testifying, this seems unlikely at the present time.

The fact that Chris Watts accused the victim of committing a crime he committed will be seen as aggravating in the extreme.

It’s probable that Nichole Kessinger will testify in aggravation, bolstering the notion that Watts deceived her and deceived everyone. If Kessinger does testify it’s also possible she will be cross-examined by the defense.

State law enforcement and officials, including the CBI and FBI may be called to testify very briefly about how they were able to nail Watts down as quickly as they did. This may involve dog handlers, the detective-on-scene and possibly the county coroner as well.

Again, given the short nature of the hearing, it’s more likely that only the District Attorney and the aggrieved parents will be called to address the court. 


In terms of Mitigation:

Since only two hours have been set down for the proceedings, it’s unlikely the mitigation will go on for much longer than one hour.

Chris Watts appears to have female state appointed defense lawyers. If that remains the case, we’ll see them in action [so to speak] for the first time. If there is a withdrawal of the guilty plea, we could see a motion fielded in court for new defense counsel.

The Judge will consider the health issues – if any, and possibly including any psychological syndromes, disorders or impairments – of the defendant.

The Judge will consider the defendant’s access to support from family and members of the community.

Members of his family will likely step forward and provide character evidence, arguing why the defendant doesn’t “deserve” a particular sentence, or why he does deserve leniency.  This aspect is likely to be emotional and controversial as well. It’s possible one of the Watts clan will raise the specter that Shan’ann was an “abusive” spouse.

The defendant’s childhood background and family history may also be considered.

Given the short nature of the hearing, it’s more likely that Watts’ legal representative and his parents will be the only one’s called to address the court.

The Defendant May Make a Statement

Chris Watts, like Jodi Arias prior to her sentencing, may elect to read a brief statement to the court. It may involve an apology, a demonstration of remorse through words, actions, gestures or commitments. It may also involve a plea for mercy and/or forgiveness.

Scrapping the Plea Deal?

There is also a significant possibility that Chris Watts may elect to withdraw his guilty plea. Although he may or may not do so on November 19th, he could also change his plea during December when the media circus will have shifted gears and moved on.

It seems likely that no matter what happens on the 19th, the case [and the aftermath] is far from over, and far from any kind of satisfactory closure for anyone, including the Rzuceks.


  1. Kaye

    Thanks for this really detailed explanation; it’s fascinating—if people are unable to watch the live stream in real time, is it possible someone will record it to share at a later date? I’m sure there will be a ton of details to process.

    • nickvdl

      Yes, there’ll definitely be a full clip of the hearing posted to YouTube. I’ll share it when it comes out, and post it alongside the analysis.

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