YORK, SC — Phillip Watts Jr., serving seven life prison sentences for shooting four people during a terrifying York County crime spree in 2007 and 2008, will not get a new trial, a judge ruled Friday.
Only the fact that Watts – who confessed to all the crimes after his arrest only to later recant and claim mental problems – used a small-caliber handgun to wound his victims kept him from being a serial killer, police and prosecutors have said.
Watts’ attempt to have his conviction overturned is seen by victims he maimed as a thinly veiled attempt to avoid dying in prison by using a mental competency scam.
“That’s good; he doesn’t need a new trial,” said Ida Neal Lord Thompson, who was shot in the head and back by Watts during a Feb. 14, 2008, robbery at a Rock Hill check-cashing business and remains disabled.
“He needs God and I forgave him a long time ago because God is merciful, but he needs to stay right where he is. In jail. He can’t hurt anybody else.”
The judge’s ruling comes as a relief to former Fort Mill Mayor Charles Powers, who was shot in the face by Watts on Feb. 5, 2008, at John Boy’s Valero station in Fort Mill.
“He needs to stay in prison,” Powers said of Watts. “He could have killed people.”
Powers held the door for Watts during the incident in 2008, thinking he was a customer. Watts then held the gun to Powers’ head and fired. The bullet passed through Powers’ cheeks, and Powers said it was “a miracle” that Watts didn’t kill him.
In some of the robberies, Watts shot people even after his victims had given him money.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who prosecuted Watts, said he was pleased with the ruling that keeps one of York County’s most dangerous criminals in prison for life.
“The evidence against Mr. Watts was clear, and is clear,” Brackett said. “He was found guilty by a jury, and then pleaded guilty in other cases because he is guilty.”
Watts, now 25, was convicted in late 2008 of an armed robbery at a Rock Hill convenience store, then pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the other crimes. He then claimed in a civil lawsuit that his trial lawyer in the first conviction should have fought for Watts to undergo mental testing before trial.
Only weeks before Watts started robbing stores and shooting people, he had been released on probation from a state juvenile jail after years of incarceration for violent crimes starting before he was a teenager.
Watts, who did receive mental health treatment in juvenile prison, had been cleared for release after mental testing in the juvenile system, court documents show.
He was arrested after police matched DNA evidence found at the check-cashing crime scene to DNA on file from his time in juvenile prison. He told investigators he would have continued terrorizing York County, robbing and shooting, until he was either caught or killed by police.
Inmates who are found guilty at trial often file post-conviction lawsuits claiming lawyers botched the case, but the suits almost always are unsuccessful.
Circuit Court Judge Edward Welmaker of Pickens heard Watts’ claims in an August hearing because York County judges accepted Watts’ guilty pleas and presided over his trial in 2008. He denied Watts a chance to have that conviction overturned in a ruling in the case filed Friday.
In the only case that went to trial, Watts claimed he was at his mother’s home when the crime happened, despite evidence and witnesses – including his girlfriend – that showed he was the armed robber. His alibi also fell apart during the trial when his sister, who claimed Watts was home, got the date wrong.
Watts tried to blame John Freeman, his court-appointed lawyer, saying Freeman should have done more concerning Watts’ mental state.
Freeman, a veteran trial lawyer, testified in August that neither Watts nor his family told him anything about Watts’ mental health treatment. In dealing with Watts to prepare for trial, Freeman said, he did not have concerns that Watts had mental problems.
In his ruling, Welmaker wrote that Freeman had used “sound strategy” in his defense of Watts, and that Watts’ claims that his lawyer failed were “self-serving” and “not credible.”
Watts’ lawyer for the lawsuit, Bill Hancock, could not be reached for comment Friday. Watts can appeal Welmaker’s ruling to the state Court of Appeals.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org