SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The trial of the man accused in the murder of a Shreveport couple whose bodies were found in their burned-out car in November 2018 has been pushed back by nearly six months.

Willie DeWayne Watkins, 37, was scheduled to go on trial Monday on two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of 43-year-old Kelly Jose and 33-year-old Heather Jose, but it had to be rescheduled under a court order issued in January postponing all jury trials until at least March 1 due to COVID concerns.

Watkins’ trial is now set to begin on June 27.

Wille DeWayne Watkins (Photo courtesy Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office)

Watkins has remained in custody since his arrest on Nov. 10, 2018, two days after the couple’s bodies were found inside a burning vehicle in the 3400 block of Penick Street in the Queensborough neighborhood.

Watkins was arrested after a standoff at his home just two blocks away, after a standoff that lasted nearly six hours.

Shreveport police say the couple had given Watkins a ride from Mall St. Vincent on the night of the slayings, where they had eaten dinner with their children earlier in the evening.

The case, which has been winding through Caddo District Court for more than three years, has been the subject of controversy, beginning with a Caddo Parish grand jury upgrading Watkin’s original second-degree murder charges to first-degree murder in a Feb. 14, 2019 indictment.

After the indictment was handed down, it was unclear whether the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office would go for the death penalty. In March 2019, the DA’s office filed a Motion of Intent to seek the death penalty in the event Watkins was convicted.

But that move slowed progress in the case. Once the death penalty was on the table, the local Indigent Defenders’ Office could no longer represent him. When a defendant faces a possible death penalty in Louisiana, he or she must be represented by death-penalty qualified attorneys. Most, if not all such attorneys in Louisiana are in the southern part of the state.

At the time, there were so many ongoing death penalty cases in Louisiana that the death-penalty attorneys already had full dance cards, so it took until early May for the appointment of Joseph Vigneri of the Capital Post Conviction Project of New Orleans as lead counsel and Elliot Brown as second-chair.  

The case continued to move slowly toward the trial for the next two years, with periodic appearances to exchange evidence, submit motions, oppositions, and then argue them before the court, giving the judge the information he needed to rule on each one.

But then, in late February 2021, the DA’s office pulled the death penalty off the table, to the dismay of one of the victim’s families, who were in favor of the death penalty, and to the relief of the other victim’s family, who opposed the death penalty.

Caddo Parish DA James Stewart cited the need to get Watkins to trial, as well as an influx of new homicide cases during the pandemic, which he said at that point had backed up trials for a year.

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

Since the court order postponing all jury trials in February effectively scrapped Watkins’ trial, Stewart’s intention to speed things up by removing capital punishment may ultimately turn out to be moot.

Watkins will be back in court on March 31 for arguments and hearings before the late June trial.