Houston When Coral Eugene Watts stood to hear his punishment after confessing to the vicious, random slayings of 13 women, the judge knew the prison sentence he was about to hand down was inadequate.
Sixty years was the most Watts could get, based on the evidence available to prosecutors, Texas Judge Doug Shaver told him in 1982. "Sad to say," he added.
The sentence turned out to be even less than the judge imagined.
An appeals court ruling knocked decades off Watts' term. And instead of being locked up until his 80s, he could be back on the streets just a year and a half from now -- unless the state of Michigan can put him away for good in a murder trial set to begin Monday.
Prosecutors are rushing to avoid what the Michigan Attorney General's Office says would be the first release of a serial killer in the United States.
"He is a cold-blooded killing machine who randomly preyed on women," said Andy Kahan of the Houston crime victims assistance office. "I don't think there is any doubt in anybody's mind that if he is released, he will resume his carnage against humanity."
Nearly all the killings to which Watts confessed occurred in late 1981 and early 1982 after he moved to the Houston area from Michigan. Watts, a mechanic, targeted women he thought had "evil eyes" but never sexually assaulted them.
He was captured in 1982 after he choked and beat 19-year-old Lori Lister in a parking lot, then dragged her to her apartment and tried to drown her in the bathtub. He bound her roommate with wire hangers, but she escaped and called police.
The slayings Watts confessed to -- 12 in Texas and one in Michigan -- were as varied as they were grisly. Most victims were stabbed or strangled. One was drowned in an Austin swimming pool. Another was found hanging from a tree near Houston's Rice University. Watts told police that he strangled a Houston woman and then held her head in a flowerpot full of water to make sure she was dead.
But aside from his detailed confession, prosecutors had no evidence of his involvement in the killings.
The families of Watts' suspected victims pushed for a plea bargain, saying they wanted to know what happened to their loved ones. So prosecutors made a deal: They let him plead guilty to just one offense -- burglary with the intent to commit murder -- and granted him immunity for the murders so that he would cooperate. Ultimately he led police to three of the bodies.
The confessed serial killer was put away without ever actually being convicted of or pleading guilty to murder.
In sentencing Watts, Shaver ruled that he had used a deadly weapon -- the bathtub filled with water -- in an attempt to kill Lister. The deadly-weapon finding meant that Watts had to serve his full 60-year sentence, without time off for good behavior. He would either die behind bars or be an old man when he got out.
But in 1989, an appeals court ruled that Watts had not been properly notified of the finding, and was thus entitled to good-behavior credit.
The ruling, combined with mandatory release laws that had been in place at the time to relieve prison overcrowding, lopped more than 35 years off his sentence. He is set to be released in April 2006 at age 52.