The face of evil in York County came back Wednesday. Evil wore a smirk, glasses and heavy chains.
A subdued, now-27-year-old Phillip Watts shambled slowly into the same York courtroom where he was sentenced to seven life sentences, plus 35 more years, after being convicted of numerous crimes in connection to a 2007-08 shooting and robbery spree that terrified the public and even the cops for months.
He was surrounded by burly prison guards who never smile when dealing with the worst criminals in South Carolina.
After a brief hearing, a judge ruled Watts can appeal one of those seven life sentences because two of his many lawyers did not file simple appeals paperwork after Watts pleaded guilty to armed robbery, assault and battery with intent to kill, and a weapons charge.
Despite this latest appeal, Watts will not be getting out of prison.
Six of the life sentences Watts received are not at issue, said Rutledge Johnson, a prosecutor for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office representing the state at the hearing. Those convictions have been affirmed by the state Supreme Court, he said after the hearing.
Watts confessed to all the crimes and later pleaded guilty but mentally ill to six of them. That came after a jury found him guilty at one trial and he had pleaded guilty in another case.
Watts – who admitted to police that he wanted to be a celebrity until they caught him or killed him – blames everybody but himself.
He never says anything about the four people he shot and left for dead – former Fort Mill Mayor Charlie Powers, a customer named Ida Neal Lord, a Chinese immigrant shopkeeper named Ping Chen, and a Vietnamese shopkeeper named Yen Nguyen.
All four survived, but they are marred forever.
Watts never says anything about the seven terrified store clerks who looked down the barrel of his handgun.
He just keeps appealing. He wants an occasional ride to York and a day out of prison. He got one Wednesday.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who put Watts in prison for seven life terms, was in court Wednesday. He said the same thing – Watts will remain in prison.
The last time Watts filed a civil appeal, called a post-conviction relief claim, a judge ruled Watts was lying when he claimed he told one of his trial lawyers in the first trial he was mentally incompetent.
Still, Watts came back to court Wednesday.
That is the justice system, and Watts still has rights, and we the public pay for him to exercise those rights – no matter how futile the effort.
Watts had been in juvenile prison as a child and a teenager for multiple robberies, had been out of jail only a few weeks when he started his shooting spree. Prosecutors have said that if Watts had been using a larger gun, he would have been a serial killer.
Ida Lord, who was shot in the head by Watts, was his last victim – Valentine’s Day 2008.
More than seven years later, Lord has not had her own day in court concerning a civil suit she filed after being injured so badly she spent years in a wheelchair with brain and other injuries.
Powers – whom Watts shot in the face in 2008 after the former mayor wished him a nice day and held the door for him at one of the stores he had robbed – sat through Wednesday’s 10-minute hearing. Powers hasn’t missed a single of Watts’ dozens of court appearances.
“If Watts is here, I will be here,” Powers said before court. “He needs to stay where he is: prison.”
Watts left when it was over. The guards did not smile. The heavy chains rattled. The bus started up to take him back to prison, where someday, after what are certain to be more court appearances, he will die.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065; firstname.lastname@example.org