Serial killer on trial for 1974 campus stabbing

Updated: 2007-07-25 16:43

Coral Eugene Watts claimed responsibility for the deaths of 12 women and assaults on three others, and authorities say he is a suspect in at least 26 unsolved homicides.

Those numbers place Watts in the company of the United States' most prolific serial killers, including John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and relatives of his victims say he has managed to elude real justice for nearly 30 years.

When Watts goes on trial this week in Kalamazoo Circuit Court for the 1974 stabbing death of a Michigan college student, it will mark only the second time he has faced first-degree murder charges. The maximum sentence he can receive in Michigan, which does not have the death penalty, is life without parole.

Furthermore, the jury will only hear about six of Watts' past victims, after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the rest of the so-called "prior bad-act evidence" was more prejudicial than probative.

But more significantly, Watts' trial this week for the brutal death of 19-year-old Gloria Steele is yet another milestone signaling the end of his good fortunes with the justice system.

In a deal with authorities in 1982, Watts, a longtime suspect in dozens of assaults and murders of women, confessed to 12 killings and three assaults in Michigan and Texas between 1979 and 1981.

Without the confession, authorities admitted that they lacked enough evidence to link Watts to the crimes, which varied from strangling to drowning to stabbing.

In exchange for his confession and a plea to aggravated robbery, Watts was granted immunity from prosecution for those crimes and a 60-year prison sentence in Texas, where 11 of the murders occurred.

Since his incarceration, the Michigan attorney general's office has indicted Watts in two other unsolved murders from the 1970s, largely based on similarities between those cold cases and the crimes to which he has already confessed.

The office began pursuing indictments against Watts in 2002, after a Texas Court of Appeals decision in another case changed his offender status and made him eligible to earn credit for good behavior.

As a result of the decision, the offender who once vowed to kill again if he ever left prison stood to be released in 2006.

Watts has already been tried and convicted in the 1979 stabbing death of Helen Mae Dutcher in Ferndale, Mich. Following a jury trial in 2004, the presiding judge lamented that he could not sentence Watts to death and handed him life in prison without parole.

Watts' second murder trial for the stabbing death of Western Michigan University student Gloria Steele starts Tuesday with jury selection in Kalamazoo Circuit Court.

Steele's boyfriend found her lying face up in her bedroom on Oct. 30, 1974, dead from more than 30 stab wounds to the chest and abdomen. Her organs, including her heart and lungs, were perforated and a piece of the murder weapon - a woodworking tool known as a skew chisel - was lodged into her one of her vertebrae.

As in the cases Watts confessed to, there were no signs of sexual assault and nothing of value was taken from Steele's home. There was no forensic evidence linking Watts to the crime scene.

While Michigan prosecutors are relying on previous cases to show a common "scheme, plan or system," a lawyer for Watts says the confessions are being used in the absence of physical evidence connecting him to the crime.

"The greatest obstacle for us to overcome is the overwhelming prejudice of the admission of the defendant's involvement in the other murders," Watts' lawyer, Jeff Getting told "There's absolutely no evidence to tie him to this murder. No prints, no physical evidence, no fibers, no blood, no DNA, no eyewitness to tie him to this crime."

In remarks to the court at his sentencing and in letters to the media since his 2004 conviction, Watts has vehemently denied his involvement in the Michigan murders.

"I say its [sic] all about putting Coral Eugene Watts in jail and keeping him there," Watts wrote in a letter to the Detroit News in 2005. "So what, he did not kill Dutcher or Stell [sic], he killed someone and someone must pay for their death."

Watts' 2004 conviction hinged primarily on the eyewitness testimony of a man who watched from his back porch as the 36-year-old victim was stabbed to death.

From the witness stand, Joseph Foy identified Watts as the man he "locked eyes" with after he stabbed Dutcher 12 times in the face, neck and chest on Dec. 1, 1979.

In the trial for Steele's death, the closest thing prosecutors have to an eyewitness account is the victim's boyfriend, who claims he saw a black man exit the apartment complex where the couple lived moments before discovering her body.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruling also lets prosecutors call witnesses who identified Watts in a preliminary hearing as the person who knocked on their doors looking for a man named "Charlie" the day before Steele's murder.

Prosecutors will also be allowed to call two women who allegedly fell for the ruse and opened their door for him. Upon entering their homes, the two women testified in a preliminary hearing, the visitor turned violent, wrestling them to the ground and strangling them before leaving them for dead.

Prosecutors can also introduce evidence of Watts' prior crimes that most closely resemble the manner in which Steele died, though Kalamazoo assistant prosecuting attorney Scott Brower declined to discuss the specific evidence.

Brower said jury selection is expected to last one day, with testimony lasting no more than a week.

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