SLOAN | How well can Colorado law address the heinous crime in Frederick?

Author: Kelly Sloan - August 28, 2018 - Updated: August 27, 2018

Kelly Sloan

The murders, by all accounts, were about as gruesome as one would care to imagine. Such horrors cannot really be quantified, of course, but nevertheless anytime such a crime occurs which extinguishes life barely begun, the normal human mind reels a little more.

The nature of the murders for which Chris Watts of Frederick has been charged provoke questions for which there are no ready answers, and some solace can be found in the fact that in our society such acts yet remain abhorrent enough to defy explanation. They also tend to reveal certain gaps or shortcomings in our criminal justice system.

Watts has been accused of three murders, those of his pregnant wife Shanann and two young daughters, prompting questions as to why he has not been charged with a fourth, i.e. the death of the unborn child. The answer of course is that Colorado has been unable to enact a fetal homicide law, tied up as the issue is with the politics of abortion. The choicers, under the rubric of “reproductive rights,” fear making any concession that may dilute the absolute repudiation of the idea that a fetus is anything other than disposable matter up until the moment it has completely cleared the mother’s body. The lifers, of course, take the opposing view, that once an egg is fertilized it becomes a human being, can be nothing else, and ought therefore be offered the same protections under the law as any other. The two positions are difficult to reconcile.

But we are reminded that even Roe v. Wade makes distinctions, establishing the markers of first, second, and third trimesters as having meaning beyond that of simple gestational timestamps. Such ability to distinguish ought to be reignited in the state’s political psyche, enough to enable the molding of a law which can be readily applied in the Frederick slaughters as well as the 2015 incident where a pregnant Longmont woman had her unborn child sliced from her womb by an assailant. The choicers concern for the absolute sovereignty of the mother need not be fatally compromised by a law recognizing the magnitude of the violation committed in either case. It is a shame that neither side can agree on the sensible distinctions required to crystallize a policy assigning some value and legal protections for an unborn fetus, short of full personhood.

The brutality in Frederick also resurrects contemplation over issues of capital punishment, and the state’s inability to enact an effective death penalty. The state, it seems, permits capital punishment, but not executions.

Proponents of the death penalty offer numerous supportive arguments, and the deterrent factor is always forefront. Opponents counter with appeals to conflicting data concerning the deterrent value of capital punishment, and the fact is that we will probably never know, with a great degree of certainty, to what extent the threat of execution stays a potential murderers’ hand. Social researchers have their methods, to be sure, but it is notoriously difficult to quantify deterrence; few would ever willingly step forward to admit of murderous intentions, blocked only by consideration of the strength of the penalty. We are left with analyzing only those who have gone ahead and committed murder, evidently undeterred by … anything.

Would the prospect of capital punishment have dissuaded the assailant in the Frederick case in any event? Deterrence would seem to be more of a factor in instances where the crime is more opportunistic. If deeper issues, involving a long and concealed pattern of abuse, violence, and deception residing in an evil mind were involved here, it clearly would be resistant to legal or social sanctions.

So the question shifts to one of punishment, and of what society’s statement ought to be regarding such acts, reflected in the options available. In this instance, does anyone really believe that rehabilitation is an option? Or that this individual ought to one day be vouchsafed readmittance into society? Can – should – a penalty be conclusive enough to reflect the value of the victims?

A concurrent question is whether we have the public stomach anymore to address seriously the underlying issues of crime and society, insofar that it may be that most issues of criminal behavior reside beyond the epidermal reach of politics and law.

Pope Francis recently inveighed rather decisively against capital punishment in all cases, arbitrarily overturning centuries of Church instruction and guidance on the subject.  His Holiness may provide a more valuable contribution by instead focusing his pastoral energies on tending to the pervasive spiritual illnesses infecting modern society.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.