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Trial begins for serial killer set to go free

/ Source: The Associated Press

A murder trial got under way Monday for a man who confessed to 13 slayings in the early 1980s but received a sentence that will release him from prison in two years.

Coral Eugene Watts, 51, is charged with the murder of a 14th woman, Helen Dutcher, whose body was found in an alley in 1979. If convicted, Watts faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Michigan does not have the death penalty.

A jury was selected Monday, and opening arguments were to begin Tuesday in the trial, which was expected to last two weeks.

Watts confessed to the 13 killings in 1982 in a deal with Texas prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge of burglary with intent to murder if he helped officials solve his crimes. He is set to be freed in April 2006.

Prosecutors had no evidence of Watts’ involvement in the slayings. The killer wore a hood, picked his victims at random, struck quickly and left little or no physical evidence behind.

Families of victims sought plea bargain
The families of Watts’ victims pushed for a plea bargain, saying they wanted to know what happened to their loved ones. Twelve of those killings took place in Texas and the other one — not Dutcher — was in Michigan.

At the time, prosecutors expected Watts would serve 60 years, which would have meant he would either die behind bars or be in his 80s when he was freed. But an appeals court ruling and mandatory release laws lopped more than 35 years off his sentence.

In Dutcher’s case, Oakland County Circuit Judge Richard Kuhn has ruled that Watts’ decades-old confession can be admitted in his trial, saying the other 13 killings show a pattern of behavior. He has not confessed to the Dutcher slaying.

Defense attorney Ronald Kaplovitz had fought to keep the confession out.

Witness surfaces
Prosecutors also have a key witness, Joseph Foy, who says he saw the killing from his back porch.

Foy said he told police years ago what he saw, but the killing of Dutcher remained unsolved. He resurfaced in January after he saw Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox on television appealing for help in solving the case.