York County serial shooter claims lawyer failed him

Herald columnistAugust 12, 2013 

— Despite confessing to shooting four people in a crime spree in 2007 and 2008 that police say terrorized York County, convicted serial shooter Phillip Watts claimed in court Monday that all the evidence against him was a lie cooked up by police.

All the evidence includes his signed confession, surveillance videotape, witnesses, DNA that links him to crime scenes and the gun used in the crimes.

Watts, now 25, filed a civil lawsuit asking a judge to overturn a guilty conviction for armed robbery, claiming that his first lawyer botched his case by not asking that Watts be tested for mental competency before a jury heard the case.

Watts was convicted in that trial, then pleaded guilty to multiple charges and was sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

During a hearing Monday, prosecutors balked at any notion that Watts deserves anything other than to die in prison. Watts used a small pistol in the shootings, and police have said that a larger gun would have left a string of bodies in his wake.

Watts told police after he was captured in 2008 that he had planned to keep robbing and shooting until he was caught or killed.

In his 2008 confession, Watts told police, “I just act on thoughts that I have, but I’m not crazy, and I want people to know that.”

Former Fort Mill Mayor Charles Powers, whom Watts shot in the face during one robbery, called it a “miracle I survived.” He blasted Watts’ attempt to try to “get off” for all the crimes he committed.

“He just remains in denial of what he did and was convicted of,” Powers said after Monday’s hearing. “It’s the system we have, but that doesn’t change what he did to me and those other people.”

Powers was the only victim of the crime spree to attend the hearing. Others who did not attend, people maimed by Watts, were shot in the back, head, arm, shoulder and abdomen.

Watts made the new allegations about his first lawyer in a lawsuit called a post-conviction relief claim. In court Monday, Watts’ lawsuit was heard before visiting Circuit Court Judge Edward Welmaker of Pickens. Welmaker said he would rule on Watts’ claims in a week.

Watts made no speeches Monday. He responded to lawyers’ questions with answers such as “yeah” and “yes sir.”

He wasn’t so courteous when he was robbing and shooting people.

Watts was convicted in a September 2008 trial of armed robbery and weapons charges for the Jan. 20, 2008, holdup of the One Stop convenience store across from Northwestern High School on S.C. 5 in Rock Hill. Testimony showed Watts was seen in the getaway car and by four witnesses and the terrified clerk, then confessed later.

That crime was in the middle of a spree of armed robberies that finally ended with Watts’ leaving Ida Neal Lord temporarily paralyzed after a Feb. 14, 2008, check cashing store shooting. Watts’ DNA was left at that scene. He was caught by a SWAT team days later.

Police learned Watts had just been released from a juvenile jail after a series of violent crimes dating back to his pre-teen years.

Court documents show Watts did get mental health treatment while he was a juvenile but was released on probation after a mental evaluation by juvenile justice and mental health officials cleared his release before launching the crime spree.

Of his vast criminal history, Watts testified Monday, “I can’t remember everything I was locked up for.”

Watts’ “gripes” – as prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s office called them in court Monday – are that his trial lawyer both did not have his mental competency tested before the trial, and that he agreed to a change of the date of the crime in indictment documents.

The date of the crime was changed in the indictment – to Jan. 20, 2008, from Jan. 22 – and was signed by the presiding judge for the 2008 trial. Watts said he gave no consent to change the date – despite his own testimony that Jan. 20 was the date for which he claimed to have an alibi.

When pressed Monday by prosecutors about his confession, Watts claimed the evidence against him was a lie. He claimed witnesses said the robber “looked like me,” but they didn’t actually identify him.

Watts testified he had schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders at the time of the 2008 trial and was under treatment from the Catawba Mental Health Center. He claimed he told his lawyer of his mental health treatment and his family asked that the lawyer get documentation of the treatment.

That lawyer, John Freeman, testified Monday he did not recall Watts or anyone else asking that he get any mental health records or make any request that Watts undergo testing.

Freeman testified that he did not have any concerns about Watts’ mental health during many interviews before trial, and that the change of date on the indictment actually strengthened Watts’ alibi.

Freeman testified that Watts first claimed to him that he did not commit the crime, then Watts and family members claimed he had an alibi.

“I was at my momma’s house,” Watts said in court Monday.

State prosecutors argued that the alibi defense fell apart when Watts’ sister claimed Watts was home with her and others on Jan. 20, 2008, because she recalled going to school the next day.

But the next day was a school holiday – Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“The fact is, Mr. Watts, your alibi just didn’t hold up,” Assistant Attorney General Rutledge Johnson said in court.

Watts’ current lawyer, Bill Hancock, and state prosecutor Johnson both declined comment after the hearing, pending the judge’s ruling.

The lawsuit heard Monday was specific to the One Stop crime and would not affect the guilty pleas Watts entered, said Kevin Brackett, the 16th Circuit solicitor who prosecuted Watts in 2008 and 2009.

It is not uncommon for the wording of an indictment to be changed for clerical reasons, Brackett said, and Watts had adequate counsel to prepare for the first trial.

Watts chose to put up an alibi defense for the One Stop crime, Brackett said, which fell apart under the weight of inconsistencies and lack of credibility over Watts’ claims to have been asleep on his mother’s couch.

“The evidence against Mr. Watts is overwhelming and extensive,” Brackett said after court. “The jury (in 2008) came back with a verdict confirming that guilt.”

After Watts was found guilty in September 2008, Brackett notified Watts that prosecutors would seek life in prison at a December 2008 trial for one of the other crimes, during which a clerk was shot. Watts chose to plead guilty in December 2008, but sentencing was delayed until Watts’ mental competency could be tested.

Watts was found competent to stand trial, then pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the rest of the crimes in early 2009 and was sentenced to life for each – seven consecutive sentences.

Powers, the former mayor, said after court that he expects the judge to rule against Watts.

“He did these crimes, and he needs to stay where he is – prison,” he said. “For the rest of his life.”

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Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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