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In Pinellas, judge doesn't buy defendant's claim to be incompetent

LARGO — Anthony Edward Watson is a skilled jailhouse lawyer who managed to slice more than a century off his 1992 prison sentence for robbery and sexual battery.

But on Monday, the 51-year-old prisoner with shaggy gray hair and beard didn't look like the man who often confidently argues finer points of law with the judge presiding over his cases.

On Monday morning, deputies found him naked in his jail cell, perched on top of a sink, even though he normally gets around in a wheelchair. Deputies forcibly "extracted" him from the cell. He appeared in court shirtless, strapped into a restraining device, and slumped over, as if unconscious.

But in spite of Watson's appearance, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Luce ruled that he was competent to stand trial and even suggested his antics might be an act.

"I'm not handing out an Oscar today, I'm simply saying that you're competent to proceed," Luce said.

Assistant Public Defender Jonathan Saunders argued Watson was not mentally competent, which would have delayed a trial scheduled for today.

Also, because of Watson's recent courthouse behavior, including smuggling a razor into the courthouse and threatening to use it on his attorneys, Luce said, "he is a danger to himself and others and will require the wearing of restraints while he is in court."

This was the latest in a strange case that began with crimes against three women in 1992.

Watson was charged in 1992 with robbing and raping a woman at an Oldsmar dry cleaners, kidnapping and robbing a woman from a Palm Harbor Pick Kwik, and robbing a woman he met at a Clearwater probation office.

He pleaded guilty and got a 160-year prison sentence. He later filed numerous appeals and, with help from state public defenders, successfully argued that his sentence was longer than the law allowed. And then, with help from federal public defenders, he won a new trial, based on evidence that he was mentally ill and incompetent at the time he pleaded guilty.

On Monday, the big question before Luce was whether Watson was mentally competent this time.

Luce heard testimony from three medical professionals who recently evaluated Watson and found him to be alert and aware enough to stand trial.

On the question of whether Watson might be faking it, Luce pointed out that at first, Watson was slumped over and unresponsive in court on Monday But as soon as Luce left the courtroom, Watson perked up and spoke to others — a change in behavior that Luce watched on a video monitor.

And then, when a video of Watson's jail "extraction" was played in court, Watson seemed to perk up and "he was watching it and smiling and smirking," Luce said.

Others testified that Watson says he is on a hunger strike, but also has let it be known he would eat a Papa John's pizza with pepperoni and bacon.

Several on Monday testified about Watson's behavior after a previous court hearing. He was in a courthouse holding cell, and found to be cutting himself with a razor he later said he had smuggled in from the jail. Later he said he had planned to use the razor on his attorneys, but chose to use it on himself. This is one of the reasons Luce said Watson would need to be restrained at trial.

The women who were the victims at the dry cleaners and the Pick Kwik 19 years ago both were in the courtroom for the hearings on Monday.

"It's a circus," said one, whom the Times is not naming because of the nature of the charges. "He's making a mockery of the system and it's disgusting to watch."

"It's like a big show, like a theater show," the other woman said. "This is his stage."

Jury selection in Watson's trial on robbery and sexual battery charges is set to begin today.

In Pinellas, judge doesn't buy defendant's claim to be incompetent 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 10:35pm]
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