First court appearance for murder suspects
Four men accused in the murders of two people in Douglas County will have their case heard on camera, following a court decision to allow cameras in the courtroom.
The cases against Christopher Wells, 49, Josiah Sher, 26, Matthew Plake, 26, and Micah Woody, 29, began in Douglas County District Court on March 3, with a dual request for expanded media coverage. The metro area’s largest daily newspaper, The Denver Post, and the television station KDVR each submitted requests to have cameras in the courtroom as the murder case begins.
Douglas County District Court Judge Paul King approved the request, over objections from attorneys on both sides of the case.
Defense attorneys for the four accused argue that sending images of the defendants would make it difficult to gather an unbiased jury in Douglas County. Chief Deputy District Attorney John Topolnicki, the lead prosecuting attorney on the case, echoed their concerns. All attorneys argued that the investigation into the murders is not yet finished and release of images of the defendants could hinder its progress.
“The spectacular nature of the case could prejudice further investigation,” Topolnicki said. “When you start adding photos and video, it does add a more spectacular nature and could unduly bias a trial. We are interested that the defendants receive an unbiased jury.”
In his ruling, King supported a previous decision made by Douglas County Court Judge Susanna Meissner-Cutler. Cutler initially received and approved the request, before the case was moved to district court. King gave credit to residents of Douglas County, who have open access to photos of the accused through online images and social media.
“I think the people of Douglas County can be fair if given a photo in advance,” King said. “The argument that a photo is equated to establishing a bias on the part of a juror begs the question of where we are with the media and everything else today. That argument is based on the fact that the parties believe citizens won’t follow law and won’t be fair. I’m not likely to go with that at this time.”
His decision is the first in the case against the four accused in the Feb. 23 murders of Amara Wells, 39, and Robert Rafferty, 49, the brother in law of Wells’ estranged husband, Christopher Wells. Amara Wells and Rafferty were found dead after authorities responded to a 3 a.m. call to the Rafferty home in rural Douglas County. At the time of her death, Amara Wells and her 6-year-old daughter were living with her in-laws at the Rafferty home in the Keene Ranch subdivision southwest of Castle Rock.
According to records on cocourts.com, Christopher Wells is charged with first-degree murder after deliberation, solicitation to commit murder and conspiracy to commit murder. At the time of her death, Amara Wells was seven months into a rancorous divorce from Christopher Wells.
In criminal filings against Christopher Wells, he was charged with violation of a protection order and violation of conditions of bond for contacting his wife against court orders. Investigators filed copies of hundreds of emails Christopher Wells sent to his estranged wife, many of which were hostile in nature.
Wells entered the courtroom appearing smaller than he does in photos. With dark hair and a gray beard and mustache, he appeared calm and unfazed by the packed courtroom. Like the other suspects, Wells entered court in shackles after days without a shower. In her argument against expanded media coverage, his attorney Tina Tussay-Cooper pointed out the potential impact of his appearance.
“My client has been in custody without commissary, hygiene, he’s unshaved,” Cooper said. “This is the image that could appear in the public’s mind and this is the image they will remember. It’s very prejudicial and jeopardizes the ability to get him a fair trial.”
Each suspect entered the courtroom separately and waived their right to hear their charges read in open court.
Sher, clean-shaven with short, cropped hair, has the most extensive criminal history and faces charges of murder in the first degree after deliberation, assault with a deadly weapon, arson, burglary, first-degree assault menacing and first-degree assault disfigurement/heat of passion.
Sher was housed in the maximum security pod of the Douglas County jail on March 1.
Woody faces charges of first-degree murder after deliberation, solicitation to commit murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Plake faces charges of murder in the first degree.
Funeral services for the deceased are expected to take place March 4, the same day defense attorneys will have access to the house where the murders took place. The sheriff’s office released the property to the Rafferty family on March 2, and the defense team aims to conduct their review of the property before it is cleaned by a restoration crew.
The next court date is March 18 for a status update. While defense attorneys aimed for an update in six weeks, Topolnicki asked for an earlier date to respond to motions from the defense.
“Other motions the defense has filed have given us notice they want to stop some scientific testing,” Topolnicki said. “I don’t want to wait five weeks for that.”