SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The Caddo Parish District Attorney is defending his decision not to seek the death penalty after all in the prosecution of a man accused in the kidnapping and slaying of a local couple who gave him a ride in November 2019.

Heather Jose was found dead along with her husband, Kelly Jose, on Nov. 8, 2018 inside a burned car in the Queensborough neighborhood. Dewayne Watkins, 34, was later was arrested in the 2600 block of Penick Street, two blocks from the burned car after a nearly six-hour standoff with police.

Investigators say the couple was murdered after giving a ride to Watkins, who they met while out shopping.

Watkins was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in February 2019 and the Caddo District Attorney’s Office filed a Motion of Intent to seek the death penalty in Watkins’ case the following month. This week, the DA’s office took that motion off the table, prompting Heather Jose’s family to release an open letter criticizing the decision.

“On February 24, 2021, Heather’s family received a phone call that destroyed their hope and belief in justice,” the letter said. “They were notified that District Attorney Stewart had unilaterally decided to drop the death penalty case and only seek life in prison for Watkins. This news devastated Heather’s family. They are being told to accept the fact that Watkins is now being blessed with the opportunity to live out his life, able to receive visits from family and friends, despite the crimes he committed when he sadistically took the lives of two innocent people who showed him kindness. This denial of justice is unacceptable and unethical.”

The letter lays out in brutal detail how Watkins allegedly stalked the couple through a family outing to Mall St. Vincent, ultimately asking Heather Jose to use her cell phone and asking for a ride before fatally shooting her husband, forcing her to drive to an ATM to empty out her bank account and making her drive to an abandoned house, where he allegedly shot her before setting fire to both their bodies.

Stewart said a lot has changed since the Motion of Intent was filed.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Stewart said his decision to take the death penalty off the table was based on the need to get Watkins to trial, coupled with “an influx of new homicide cases during the pandemic,” which he said has backed up trials for a year.

“Time does not work to the prosecution’s benefit,” Stewart said. He said if the death penalty had remained, the trial would have been delayed, “we’re talking about 2022 or 2023.”

Stewart also said there were two separate families involved, and though Heather Jose’s family, who released Tuesday’s letter, is in favor of the death penalty, Kelly Jose’s family is not.

Still, the letter from Heather Jose’s family notes, “They’re not even waiting for the defense attorney to ask for it. They’re dismissing the death penalty all on their own and they’re doing it more than six months before the trial. One has to wonder what the motivation is.”

“I spoke to both families separately,” Stewart recalled of the initial communications with relatives of the victims about the move to seek the death penalty in the case. “The family in California wanted the death penalty, the other family in east Texas did not want the death penalty for a number of reasons, so we started off at that point.”

At the time, Stewart knew whatever decision he made regarding the death penalty would please one family while making the other family unhappy. The same is true on his latest decision, only the families are reversed.

Stewart said before making the decision, he met with prosecutors and though “the facts are egregious,” the decision was not made on emotion, but the DA’s office has had to “adapt to the times.”

The last death penalty case in Caddo Parish was the October/November 2019 trial of Grover Cannon, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the August 2015 murder of Shreveport Police Officer Thomas LaValley. But during the penalty portion of the trial – a separate trial held after a first-degree murder conviction when the death penalty is an option – the same jury that convicted Cannon voted to sentence him to life in prison.

With the death penalty off the table, Watkin’s first-degree murder trial is on the docket for Oct. 18, 2021.