Anthony Edward Watson doesn't seem like a man with enough legal skill to get his prison sentence reduced by more than 100 years.
He is a tall 50-year-old with a bushy gray beard and dark blue jail scrubs. He walks with a cane. He has struggled with mental problems and cocaine. His formal education consists of passing the GED test behind bars.
And he certainly didn't seem too savvy one day in 1992, when he pleaded guilty in Pinellas Circuit Court to kidnapping, robbery, and raping a pregnant woman at knifepoint. He was promptly sentenced to 160 years in prison.
But Watson spent long hours in prison libraries, learning law and hand-writing his own motions. His motions became formal appeals that won him assistance from government lawyers, and eventually cut more than a century off his sentence. His release date went from 2152 to 2018.
Last year, one of his motions won him the jackpot: a new trial. For Watson, it's a chance to be found not guilty and walk out of prison forever.
It was his greatest legal accomplishment. And maybe, his greatest mistake. Because a jury could find him guilty. If so, he won't be getting out in 2018. He could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
• • •
In 1992, Watson was a 32-year-old with short brown hair and a moustache. He had done time in New York for burglary and moved to Florida to be closer to the mother of his young daughter. He says he also was smoking crack cocaine at the time.
According to police, Watson came to a probation office in Clearwater on March 23, 1992, with his 3-year-old daughter. While there, he asked a 26-year-old woman if she wanted to smoke some marijuana. She said yes.
Watson drove to the woods, and left his daughter asleep in the back of his station wagon. He shared crack instead of marijuana, and then told the woman: "You owe me sex." He pulled out a knife. They struggled over her purse and Watson "started to punch her in the face, pulled her hair and bit her in the forearm." She got away.
Two mornings later, Watson walked into a dry cleaner's office in Oldsmar and pulled out a knife. He locked the shop and asked the 19-year-old, pregnant clerk for money. Then he took her to the bathroom and began raping her. She eventually got the knife away, stabbing him. But that didn't stop him from forcing her into another sexual act.
About 2:30 in the morning of the next day, Watson walked into a Palm Harbor Pick Kwik and asked for cigarettes. The 19-year-old clerk was getting change when Watson drew a .44-caliber handgun. He demanded the store's money, took her to his station wagon, "and told her that if he were to get stopped by a cop, he would shoot and kill her."
They did get stopped. Police had been looking for a station wagon matching Watson's car since the rape the night before. The clerk jumped out. Watson sped away, but was soon caught.
• • •
Like any defendant, Watson could have fought those allegations and demanded a trial. Instead, in a hearing about six weeks later, he pleaded guilty to sexual battery, kidnapping, robbery, armed burglary and other crimes.
It was strange, because Watson didn't get anything out of it. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt C. Downey already had discussed a sentence of "40 years on each count consecutive" — 160 years total.
For the victims, the long sentence was the first good news since the shattering crimes that would haunt them for years.
For the woman who was raped at the dry cleaner, the "whole thing was horrific," she recalled in a recent interview. And to make matters worse, she needed to wait for a blood test to see if Watson was infected with HIV. "I cried every day wondering whether my baby and I were going to die of AIDS."
Like her, the clerk abducted from the Pick Kwik remained terrified for years and still suffers. At least Watson's guilty plea seemed to close a chapter.
"I said, okay, it's all over, he's in jail for (160) years," she said.
• • •
For Watson, 160 years did not begin smoothly. Three months after pleading guilty, he tried to get away by climbing under a transport bus at an Orlando prison. He was charged with escape, which had the potential to add 15 years to his 160.
His guilty plea loomed large in his mind. Later, he would deny remembering it, saying he was mentally ill and heavily medicated.
"I was not in my right state of mind," he said recently, adding: "I was taking 800 milligrams of Thorazine (a powerful antipsychotic drug) at the time and I was drooling like a baby."
During a stay at the Zephryhills Correctional Institution in the late 1990s, a friend suggested he fight his old escape charge, which had never been prosecuted. So he hand-wrote a motion to dismiss, using scraps of knowledge he gleaned from inmates and the law library.
And he won. It was possibly a meaningless victory — what's the difference between 160 years in prison and 175? But he savored it.
"It was kind of enjoyable for me," he said, in a recent interview at the Pinellas County Jail. It felt "like getting over on the system, really . . . we ended up getting it dismissed with a loophole."
"After I got that dismissed," he added, "that's when I started going to the law library … and looking at my case."
• • •
Exercise, reading, television, cards — inmates pass years in different ways. Watson dived into law libraries at Charlotte and Lake Correctional institutions. He dreamed that some case in some law book held a key to open the prison door.
One day he read the case of Hale vs. State, in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled a lower court shouldn't have sentenced a man to two consecutive 25-year prison terms for sale and possession of the same piece of crack. In Watson's mind, the case was just like his. Except, he said, that he discovered the case too late to file a similar appeal. He felt the Supreme Court had just handed him that key, and it slipped through his fingers.
"I started tearing the books up after that," he said. "Trying to find something else."
• • •
As Watson spent more hours with law books, he found himself getting good at it. He even hand-wrote a book called A Guide to the Plea Circus.
But he was still trying to work on his own "Buck Rogers release date," of 2152. He filed motion after motion, and often got rejected.
And then he discovered the case of State vs. Lamont, in which the Florida Supreme Court found an irregularity in the law covering habitual offenders like Watson. Essentially, the state Supreme Court ruled that the habitual offender law did not apply to cases like Watson's, calling into question the length of his sentence. When Watson read the opinion, he was ecstatic. It was like the court had pressed another key into his palm, and this time he closed his fist tight.
He wrote his own motion in 2000 and sent it to the same court that convicted him. This time, with help from public defenders, he won. First, the trial court resentenced him to four consecutive 27-year sentences, and later an appeals court reduced his sentence to no more than 27 years. He also had a 30-year sentence not covered by the appeal, but this still meant he should get out around 2018, in his late 50s.
Suddenly, Watson wasn't a lifer anymore.
"It was like a big relief off my shoulders just to know that I had an out date," he said. "I can't describe it. It was just exhilarating. It relieved a lot off me. Because now I'm getting back out again to see my daughter … maybe see my grandkids if she has any."
• • •
During these long years, Watson was not the only one who felt shackled.
"If anybody has been a prisoner over the last 18 years," said the woman abducted from Pick Kwik, it was her and the woman who had been raped.
The woman who was raped said recently that during the attack, "I really thought 'my baby and I are going to die' and my family (will) carry that pain for the rest of their lives."
Afterward, she was scared someone might attack her again. "There were days I couldn't make it through the bank drive-through."
In spite of the fear, she vows to testify against Watson if she gets the chance, "just to see that that monster doesn't eventually get out to hurt anyone."
• • •
Watson's 18-year quest to get out of prison raises an obvious question: Why did he plead guilty in the first place? His answer has always been that he was mentally ill at the time and unaware of what he was doing.
So U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara reviewed the 1992 hearing in which Watson pleaded guilty. Lazzara called the case a "morass" and a "calamity." He skewered Judge Downey — who would later resign amid an unrelated official investigation — for showing a "cavalier approach" when accepting Watson's plea.
As Lazzara noted, two public defenders had complained that Watson was not only heavily medicated at the hearing, but "drooling like a baby." One was so skeptical of Watson's mental condition that he crossed out standard language saying, "I believe that my client understands the contents and the meaning of this plea form." He changed it to say Watson "claims that he" understands.
Lazzara noted that he does not overturn state court decisions lightly, but wrote: "Pressuring for a plea that day instead of delaying for a week to have Watson evaluated is simply unfathomable, as is the failure of Judge Downey to acknowledge, or worse, recognize, the facts in this case as 'red flags.' "
Lazzara granted Watson a new trial.
• • •
Deciding whether Watson was mentally competent is a different question than whether he attacked three women.
That question will likely go to a jury next year. Watson himself touched on the issue recently, when a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked what he would say to these victims.
"I don't know how I could say anything because I don't know if I did that crime. I don't know if I'm guilty or not."
"I told you," he added, "I was high on drugs."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.