“It’s too early for conjecture.” “Wait for the case to be heard in court.” “We’re missing key evidence so we can’t possibly know what happened…” These are some of the responses to an analysis of the case. If you’re Chris Watts’ defense team, then your job is going to be conjecture. Your job is going to be collecting evidence and drafting a reasonable-as-possible version to field in court. What might that entail?
As it happens, when you’re in the business of true crime [as I am] then it’s also your job to figure out these cases. To apply your mind from a lawyer’s perspective, from the cop’s perspective, from a narrative perspective [as narrator], and from the perspective of the media impact on everything. Someone writing a book about a case is similar to the lawyer’s perspective in that one has to present a theory about what happened. In layman’s terms – you have to tell a story that integrates all the evidence and adds up.
A narrative and what the media say isn’t the same thing. The media highlight fragments here, and fragments there, and basically play the role of passing on information. For this reason the media can become a PR vehicle for a particular angle in a case, especially high profile cases. Media that doesn’t serve an agenda in this regard isn’t doing its job, but it’s important to bear this in mind.
Usually one can quickly identify particular journalists who trumpet a particular narrative. Some become useful if not vital tools for the defense case. We’re not quite there yet with this case, but it’s early. We’re getting there.
Before drilling down into the possibilities of the defense case, it’s worth noting what the value is in thinking about a case before it goes to trial. The value in thinking about something – that’s the value. We can make up our own minds, we can listen and look for information. And we can think about it. When the trial unfolds, we can and should hold the court accountable to uphold the law, and to pay attention to and care about the details of a case just as we do. In other words, when we’re discerning about a particular set of legal circumstances, we hold the justice system to a high standard.
It would be good if we could do so in general, rather than only when a high-profile crime comes around, but paying attention to a crime and how its dealt with is always better than paying no mind whatsoever.
Those interested in the Watts case – everyone – ought to be encouraged to think about it. To personalise it. To try to understand it. And most important, to learn from it.
Now, without further ado, let’s see what the defense are dealing with, and what’s likely to play out in the Weld County Court.
- It has been confirmed, of course, but the Chris Watts case is looking more and more like it’s headed to being heard as a death penalty case. For reference, Jodi Arias, and Casey Anthony were both tried in death penalty hearings in cases that looked and felt like slam dunks. Neither Jodi nor Casey were sentenced to death, and Casey was famously acquitted. The O.J. Simpson case – involving double murder, premeditated – was also a candidate for a death penalty trial. The district attorney decided not to set the bar that high, and OJ still beat the charges. So not having a death penalty trial is no guarantee of success either. In the Scott Peterson case, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. That was on March 16, 2005. Thirteen years later, Scott Peterson is still around, and still appealing his case.
- Can he afford a decent defense lawyer? Top defense lawyers don’t come cheap, but that doesn’t mean Chris Watts won’t be able to afford one, regardless of whether his finances are hanging by a thread or not. Steven Avery and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three were all in far worse shape financially than Chris Watts, and both were able to attract not only top defense lawyers, but some of the best and brightest defense teams in the country. The same applied to Casey Anthony. Jose Baez wasn’t in it just for blow jobs, in his book he describes the “priceless” marketing involved in simply being associated with the country’s most high-profile defense case. This case promises to be that too.
- What will Chris plead? Guilty or not guilty? Don’t be too surprised if he pleads not guilty, arguing that this was a case of justifiable homicide.
- Accidental death? It’s not unusual for the defense narrative to evolve. The Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias trials are classic examples of a flip-flopping defense. A flip-flopping defense isn’t good, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t create reasonable doubt. Strangely though, the same standard [or lack of] doesn’t apply to the prosecution side of things. Any flip-flopping from a prosecutor makes his case seem frivolous and unfairly targeted – and thus unfair.
- Defense assets. What are the main assets, the best cards the Watts defense have to play [or to hold]? In the same way that the survivor knows best what the true family and relationship dynamics are, he’s also in the best position to reveal the stuff that makes him look good. We saw the relationship dynamic memorably contested in the OJ Simpson case, but it’s pretty standard in criminal cases. The defendant is going to field his best case why he’s a nice guy and a loving family, and why Shan’ann’s not. Soon the court will be left wondering – wow, if this family was so happy, how’d everyone end up dead? The Henri van Breda case is another classic example of the survivor speaking on everyone’s behalf, telling the court what a normal, loving family they all were [including the triple axe murdering accused of course]. Another big asset in Chris Watt’s pocket is his inside knowledge of the house and the work site. He knows family dynamic, he knows the crime scenes, he knows the home, he knows what evidence could incriminate but the prosecutors don’t. They have to play catch up.
- The biggest hurdle. At this stage it may be too early to say. One could argue that the video surveillance footage showing him leaving, and no one else, is irrefutable. We’ve seen similar footage in, for example, the Zahau case. In the Jodi Arias case a camera’s metadata was incredibly damning, but incredibly, still not sufficient on its own to condemn Jodi. The confession may also be a huge hurdle, but as we saw in the Amanda Knox case, if it can be shown to have been made under any kind of duress, or violating any protocols, it can be thrown out. The same applies to the interview given by Watts himself on the morning of August 14. This statement could be argued prejudiced Watts his right to a fair trial, irrespective of whether he consented to do the interview voluntarily. All of Chris Watts’ lies, like Casey Anthony’s, don’t necessarily amount to a strong case for the prosecution. The defense could conceivably shrug it off and say, he was dishonest, it was foolish, it was self-preservation, he was emotionally compromised.
- Biggest asset. #5 touched on a few assets, but chief among them is:
A. Shan’ann’s emotional state of mind. If the defense can prove that Shan’ann was overwrought, exhausted, angry, angry, vindictive, and vengeful because of the affair, and perhaps because of the difficulties of her job, then she can be cast as the “real” enemy in this story. She’s the villain of the tale. Jodi Arias did this to devastating effect during her murder trial, and arguably, Casey Anthony did an even better job accusing a phantom nanny, her father, her brother as well as implicating a utility worker.
B. While sketching a portrait of Shan’ann as unhinged, emotional, even suicidal, Chris Watts can contrast himself [with some basis in fact] as the perfect husband, and a loving father. In this respect, Shan’ann’s own endorsement on Facebook will likely come into play on his behalf. Oscar Pistorius did something similar in his criminal trial.
8. Court TV? Will the case be broadcast live? The defense will argue against it, and it’s possible the court may not allow it. It’s a tough one. But Colorado courts seem to be fairly strict, and their policy towards the media thus far has been somewhat closed and conservative.
9. Who’s in his corner right now? At present [and subject to change and correction] Chris Watts’ defense team appear to comprise:
James Merson [Defense lawyer]
Richard Eikelenboom [Forensics expert and blood spatter analyst, worked on JonBenet Ramsey case]
Megan Ring [Public Defender]
The fact that a woman appears to be involved in Chris Watts’ defense will be good for the so-called “optics” of the trial. Also relevant to the defense side of things, though not necessarily integral to it is Kathryn Herold [Deputy State public defender].
Chris Watts may also have been given a prison diary to jot down notes by his defense team. The idea would be to use these notes in court to address issues such as state of mind, changes in state of mind, and the evolving defense side of things.
The trial narrative is still a long, long road ahead for Chris Watts and trial watchers.