Monday, May 12, 2008

Defense attorney blames serial killer for O.C. slaying

Opening statements launch death penalty trial for a Florida man prosecutors have linked by DNA to a cold case killing in Seal Beach.


The Orange County Register

SANTA ANA – A notorious serial murderer knew details about the 1980 rape-slaying of a Seal Beach woman that only her killer would know, a defense attorney representing a Florida man charged in the same case told a jury Thursday.

Deputy Public Defender Dan Cook contended that Henry Lee Lucas – who once confessed to more than 600 murders – "got all of the facts right" when he confessed in 1986 to killing Simone Sharpe, 70, on Dec. 23, 1980.

Cook insisted in his opening statement that it was Lucas, and not his client – a convicted rapist named Benjamin Wayne Watta, 62 – who killed Sharpe.

But senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin told the jury in his opening statement that Watta has been linked to the cold case crime scene by DNA evidence developed years after Lucas falsely confessed to the killing.

Yellin said the odds that someone other than Watta left the DNA recovered from Sharpe's body are less than one in a trillion.

And, the prosecutor said, Lucas has been excluded as the donor of the genetic material found at the Sharpe crime scene.

At stake for Watta is a potential sentence of death by lethal injection or life in prison without the possibility of parole if the jury finds that he committed first-degree murder during the course of a rape or a burglary. His is the first death-penalty trial in Orange County this year.

Sharpe was killed when she went to feed her neighbor's cats more than 25 years ago. Her son found her battered and bruised body in a bedroom of the neighbor's house on Christmas Eve 1980. She was suffocated.

The case went unsolved for years – until Lucas, a Texas drifter, confessed to a Seal Beach detective in 1986.

Lucas made headlines in the mid-1980s when he confessed to murdering more than 600 people during a cross-country killing spree with a crime partner. Detectives from 40 states went to Texas to talk to him about an estimated 3,000 homicides.

But soon, Lucas started recanting his confessions. Eventually, most law enforcement officers involved in the cases came to believe that a majority of Lucas' confessions were fabricated.

Still, Lucas was the only suspect in the Sharpe murder until 2001, when cold case detectives from the Orange County District Attorney's Office learned that Watta's DNA matched genetic material taken from Sharpe's body.

Lucas became the only death row inmate to have his death sentence commuted by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

He died of natural causes in 2001 in a Texas prison, where he was serving a life term on multiple murder convictions.

Watta's trial before Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler is expected to last about two months.

Contact the writer: 714 834-3784, or

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