Murder of Pregnant Mother in Colorado Highlights Unborn Children Laws

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
August 21, 2018US News

The murder of pregnant mother Shanann Watts has highlighted the laws in Colorado dealing with unborn children.

Watts, 34, was 15 weeks pregnant when she was killed by husband Chris Watts, who has admitted to killing her but accused his wife of first strangling their two daughters. Prosecutors don’t believe him and have charged him with all three murders.

One of the nine charges against Watts deals with the unborn baby—unlawful termination of a pregnancy, a class two felony.

The charge could be different if Colorado was one of the 38 states with fetal homicide laws.

Colorado does have three statues that can add longer jail terms if a criminal committing a crime against a pregnant woman knew or reasonably should have known the woman was pregnant.

In the case of a murder, if the victim was a pregnant woman and the defendant intentionally killed the victim knowing she was pregnant, then it can be a triggering factor that leads to the death penalty (several other triggering factors apply in the Watts case, such as the defendant intentionally killing a child under age 12), according to statue 18-1.3-1201.

Murders of pregnant women or unborn babies bring fetal homicide laws or a lack of such laws to the forefront, most recently in Colorado when a woman, Dynel Lane, was convicted after cutting a 34-week-old unborn baby out of another woman’s womb in 2016.

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Christopher Watts is escorted into the courtroom before his bond hearing at the Weld County Courthouse in Greeley, Colo. (Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune via AP, Pool, file)
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Chris and Shanann Watts in a file photo. (Shanann Watts/Facebook)
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Mourners gather in front of a memorial for a candle-lit vigil for Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, in front of the Watts’ home in Frederick, Colorado on Aug. 17, 2018. (Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan via AP)

Stan Garnett, the Boulder County District Attorney who oversaw the prosecution and is now an attorney, told Denver7 that it would be difficult for prosecutors in the Watts case to file a murder charge related to Shanann Watts’ unborn baby.

“Under both Colorado statute as it’s interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado case law, unless a child is born alive and is then killed after living independently from the mother, it’s virtually impossible to bring a homicide charge,” Garnett said.

“Colorado requires that the child live outside of the mother’s womb independently and then be killed as a result of something that occurs then.”

The Lane case prompted some state lawmakers to try to pass a law that would have classified the killing of an unborn baby as a homicide, with certain limiting factors, but the bill failed. In 2014, a “personhood” initiative that would have amended the state’s constitution by including unborn babies under the definition of “person” and “child” in the state’s criminal code was defeated, 64.8 percent to 35.1 percent.

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