A confessed serial killer was convicted of murder Wednesday in a case brought by prosecutors in a desperate bid to keep him from getting out of prison in less than two years.
Coral Eugene Watts, 51, was found guilty of stabbing 36-year-old Helen Dutcher to death in a Detroit suburb in 1979. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Watts showed little reaction as the verdict was read. Victims and family members hugged and flashed smiles in the courtroom after Watts was led away in shackles.
“It’s what we prayed for,” said Peggy Dutcher, Helen Dutcher’s sister-in-law.
Watts was due to be released from a Texas prison in April 2006.
He had received immunity for 12 killings — 11 in Texas and one in Michigan — as part of a 1982 deal with Texas prosecutors that led to a 60-year sentence for burglary with intent to murder. But mandatory release laws and an appeals court ruling lopped more than 35 years off his sentence.
Defense attorney Ronald Kaplovitz said it would be up to Watts whether to appeal. He said Watts’ reaction to the verdict was “quiet resignation.”
Police had suspected Watts in Dutcher’s death for years, but never charged him because they assumed he would be in his 80s if he ever got out of prison in Texas.
In an urgent effort to keep Watts behind bars, Michigan’s attorney general appealed for help on national TV in January. In response, a man who claimed he witnessed the attack on Dutcher from his porch came forward.
Witness' memory questioned
At the trial, Watts’ lawyer questioned witness Joseph Foy’s ability to identify someone in a dark alley from 85 feet away. He also questioned Foy’s memory after 25 years.
In addition to Foy’s testimony, the jury heard about the murders and attempted murders for which Watts was granted immunity, including tearful testimony from a Texas woman whose throat was slit by Watts. The judge in the case allowed the testimony to be introduced as evidence of a pattern on Watts’ part.
Nearly all the killings to which Watts confessed occurred in 1981 and 1982 after he moved to the Houston area from Michigan. Watts, a mechanic, targeted women he thought had “evil eyes.”
Most victims were stabbed or strangled. One was drowned in an Austin, Texas, swimming pool. Another was found hanging from a tree near Houston’s Rice University.
But aside from his detailed confession, prosecutors said there was little or no physical evidence to connect him to the crime. The families of Watts’ suspected victims pushed for a plea bargain because they saw it as the only way to find out what happened to their loved ones. Ultimately, he led police to three of the bodies.
“I’m glad to see that finally we were able to pull a viable case together so that the victims’ families would have their day in court — even if only vicariously,” said Assistant Michigan Attorney General Donna Pendergast.
Law enforcement officials in Michigan, Texas and Canada suspect Watts in the slayings of dozens of other women. Watts has told them he would kill again if he ever got out of prison, authorities said.
Earlier Wednesday, authorities in Kalamazoo, Mich., charged Watts with murder in the 1974 stabbing death of 19-year old Gloria Steele, a Western Michigan University student. Kalamazoo police reopened the Steele investigation in 2003.