Judge recuses himself from hearing for York County serial shooter

Herald columnistMay 16, 2013 

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— Phillip Watts – York County’s 2008 serial shooter serving seven life sentences in prison – will have to wait until August to try to have his convictions overturned after a judge set to hear the appeal recused himself Thursday.

One of the four people Watts admitted shooting during a court hearing four years ago, Ida Neal Thompson, a woman left disabled for life and unable to work, will have to wait to see the man who shot her again.

Another victim who was shot in the face, former Fort Mill Mayor Charles Powers, will have to wait, too.

Watts filed a lawsuit claiming his guilty-but-mentally-ill pleas on six of eight armed robbery charges and to shooting four people were involuntary because he was mentally ill at the time he terrorized York County.

The hearing of that lawsuit – opposed by local prosecutors and the state Attorney General’s office – was set for Thursday. But as the hearing started, Watts’ lawyer, Bill Hancock, asked Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III to recuse himself “out of an abundance of caution.”

Hancock cited Hayes’ presiding over Watts’ 2008 sentencing and the judge’s friendship with Powers.

Hancock said he was not saying Hayes could not be fair, but “there could be an appearance” that Hayes “was improperly influenced.”

Hayes, a judge for more than 20 years, agreed to recuse himself, saying he could be fair in the Watts case and did not like passing the buck to another judge.

But, he said, “sometimes it must not only be right, but look right.”

Hayes scheduled an August hearing for Watts’ lawsuit, with a judge to be determined.

Watts, now 25, confessed to all the crimes after being arrested. He told police he would not have stopped the violent robberies until police either caught him or shot him.

He started his crime spree in late 2007, shortly after he was released from a juvenile prison, where he had been for years for violent crimes dating back to his pre-teen years.

Watts was found guilty by a jury in a 2008 trial for one case of armed robbery at a Rock Hill convenience store across from Northwestern High School. Later that year, he pleaded guilty in another case in which he shot Ping Chen, a clerk at a Rock Hill fish market, in the shoulder and arm.

In April 2009, Watts pleaded guilty to the remaining crimes that were part of the spree that ended when Thompson was shot on Valentine’s Day 2008. He was caught after police matched DNA he left on a pen to DNA on file from his years in prison.

Watts did not speak in court Thursday morning other than to tell Hayes that he understood that the hearing had been postponed. Members of his family were in the courtroom but did not speak.

Thompson, 47, said before going into the courtroom that she was “nervous about seeing Mr. Watts after what he did to me.”

She was in a coma for months after she was shot in the head and back. She needed years of therapy and rehabilitation to learn to walk and talk again.

The mother and grandmother was a home health nursing aide who assisted dying hospice patients at the time she was shot. She is now unable to work, and her only income is disability payments.

Powers, her fellow victim, is setting up a fund at a local credit union to help Thompson. He hopes to have it operational by next week.

In all, Watts admitted to eight armed robberies during which four people were shot, including the one during which Powers and clerk Kim Nguyen were shot at a Fort Mill store.

Watts held the gun against Powers’ head even as Powers, thinking Watts was a customer, held the door for him.

“I often wonder what would have happened if he pulled the trigger a little quicker,” Powers said after court.

What would have happened is Powers would have been shot in the temple, the brain, instead of the cheek.

Powers said he understood why the case was postponed, but he wants to make sure Watts is never released from prison. He has attended all of Watts’ hearings over the years, but he said he has not been able to sleep thinking about the possibility that Watts might have a chance to get out of prison.

“I really wish that Mr. Watts would get himself right with what he has done and try and make the best of his life in prison,” Powers said.

Thompson, who was initially paralyzed after being shot twice, has kept Watts in her prayers.

“I would tell him that I am sorry for him, because I know he had problems,” she said after Thursday’s hearing, “that I forgive him, and that Jesus Christ loves him, even with what he did to me.”

Still, she “hopes that Mr. Watts’ time is never shortened.”

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

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