STUART — Eugene McWatters is at the Martin County Jail after being returned from Florida’s death row to await a new trial for three counts of first-degree murder related to the killing of three women in 2004.
The transfer Aug. 11 was ordered once prosecutors said they were not appealing Circuit Judge Larry Schack’s order in July that threw out three murder convictions and death sentences he imposed against McWatters following a 2006 jury trial.
McWatters , 36, has spent eight years on death row for the strangulation murders of Jacqueline Bradley, 43; Christal Wiggins, 29; and Carrie Caughey, 18, all of the Port Salerno area.
For the grisly serial killings, he’d earned the nickname the Salerno Strangler. He’s expected to remain jailed until his trial, which prosecutors say could be a year or more away.
The state filed papers indicating they will seek the death penalty against McWatters, which a jury in 2006 recommended by a vote of 9-3 after less than three hours of deliberations.
Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler said the state decided not to appeal Schack’s ruling that roundly criticized the court-appointed legal representation McWatters received throughout his murder trial.
He noted the Florida Supreme Court gives judges a great deal of discretion in capital murder cases. So the question on appeal, Butler said, is not whether the trial court exercised discretion soundly, but whether it abused that discretion.
“That’s a very difficult standard to meet on appeal,” he said.
Another factor in deciding to seek a new trial is the potential three or four years it could take for the high court to rule on appeal.
“We believe the victims’ families have suffered enough from this order, and we did not want to prolong that suffering when the result may be the same four years from now,” Butler said. “The defendant can be tried, convicted, and sent where he belongs in less time than the appeal would take.”
At McWatters ’ new trial, he’ll be prosecuted by Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl and Assistant State Attorneys Steve Gosnell and Erin Kirkwood. Records show McWatters is represented by Thomas Burns, with the office of Regional Conflict Counsel in Fort Pierce. Burns couldn’t be reached for comment.
McWatters’ has a status conference scheduled before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Metzger Sept. 19.
Schack, who retires in January, stunned authorities last month with his ruling that railed on McWatters’ defense lawyers ’ “deficient” performance and noted new pathology testimony not offered in 2006 that questions findings of medical examiners who told a jury the slain women were sexually assaulted and strangled.