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Death row inmate appears for third attempt at new trial

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Death Row inmate Steven Victor Wertz reads over notes at his hearing on Monday, April 9. Photo/Tammy Curtis [Order this photo]
Steven Victor Wertz, an Arkansas death row inmate who was sentenced to death in 2007 for the 1986 shotgun slayings of an Ash Flat couple, appeared in court on Monday, April 9, before Circuit Judge Harold Erwin. The appearance marks the third attempt for Wertz to be granted a new trial in what is called a Rule 37 Hearing. Wertz claims that he had ineffective legal counsel during his initial trial.

During the course of the hearing,Wertz's new attorneys from the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission W.H. Taylor and Jeff Mitchell called witnesses to testify that Wertz had not received adequate representation by his former attorney Greg Bryant during the penalty phase of his trial. The testimony, attempted to prove that as a result of the lack of representation, the case could have ended with less than a death penalty sentence.

Witnesses called to testify for the plaintiff (Wertz) included Bryant, Wertz, his wife Judith Wertz, Little Rock Attorney Jeff Rozenzweig, who was interviewed about working on the initial case as a mitigation expert. As of press time, the hearing was continued to Tuesday, April 10 when the plaintiff will complete their witness list with two mitigation experts, and a friend of Wertz from Vietnam. Prosecutor John McQuarry plans to call Sharp County Chief Deputy David Huffmaster who was the main investigator of the murders to testify that Wertz was not cooperative with his former attorney and that resulted in him not being able to gather evidence the new attorney's were able to collect. At press time, the hearing was set to resume April 10 at 9 a.m.

Wertz was sentenced to death by lethal injection -- Sharp County's first death row sentence -- in 2007 for the murders of Terry and Kathy Watts. The nine day trial ended after a jury of seven men and five women convicted Wertz, now 62, of two counts of capital murder, after only 40 minutes of deliberation. In less than an hour, the jury decided on the death penalty.

The victims, Terry and Kathy Watts, were found murdered in their home in the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 1986, by Kathy's mother, Judy Bone, who came by to take her son-in-law to work. Terry, 25, was found in the front room of the home, while Kathy, 22, was found in the master bedroom. The couple's 11-month-old son, Joshua, was found safely sleeping between his father's legs.

Terry suffered two shotgun blasts to his body, according to medical examiners reports. His throat had also been slashed.

The report also indicated, Kathy, 22, was shot in the right side of the head and in the left side of the chest.

The convicted murderer was married to Watt's first wife, Belinda, and became a suspect immediately after the crime. She had married Wertz, a Vietnam veteran, an Oklahoma police officer and an employee of the National Guard, in February of 1986. The couple lost a custody battle for 5-year-old Chasenda, the daughter of Terry and Belinda, shortly before the murders occurred.

Terry Watts married Belinda in 1981, at the age of 19 when she was 17-years-old and pregnant with their child. After two years of marriage, the couple divorced and had joint custody of their young daughter until October 1984.

Shortly after the divorce, Terry met Kathy Bone and the two married. Later, the Watt's were awarded full custody of Chasenda, because of evidence of physical abuse and neglect from her mother. The new family of four, including the Watt's infant son Joshua, moved to Ash Flat to be near Kathy's family.

Belinda and Wertz filed for at least two changes in custody in 1986. Each time, they were turned down. The last time custody was denied was on Dec. 18, 1986 -- less than two weeks prior to the murders.

During Wertz's trial, Belinda said she had lied to police each time she was questioned, including about Wertz's whereabouts the night of Dec. 30. She said the last time she saw Wertz -- around 4 or 4:30 p.m. -- he was with James Guthrie Burr Snyder Jr., a co-defendant in the case. She said Wertz was carrying a bag when the two left. Belinda later said she didn't see Wertz again until the next morning, as the sun began to rise.

She said Wertz told her, if anyone were to ever ask, the men were at home all night and at the National Guard armory during the day. She said she and Wertz went to see a doctor at nearby Tinker Air Force Base the morning of Dec. 31. She said he was complaining of vomiting and diarrhea, although she added that she never saw him get sick. While at the base, Belinda learned of the murder of Terry and Kathy.

It was proven at trial that Snyder borrowed his mother's 1985 Plymouth Laser and made the drive from Cushing, Okla., to Guthrie, Okla., where it was first believed Terry and Kathy Watts were living.

After arriving and learning the Watts' were not there, Wertz and his accomplice began the drive to Ash Flat, Ark.

The men arrived around midnight and, according to testimony, Snyder knocked on the couple's door. When Terry came to the door, Wertz stepped out and fired his shotgun before going into the home. Snyder reported hearing two to three shots in the house, as he remained in the yard during the killings.

The two quickly left, making their way back to Oklahoma and establishing an alibi during the trip. They decided they would say they had been at Wertz's home all night sick with the flu. According to Belinda's testimony, the following morning, Wertz made a trip to the doctor to establish the alibi.

When originally questioned by police in January 1987, Snyder gave authorities the alibi Wertz had devised. Snyder said he lied because he was fearful of Wertz and what he might be capable of.

Snyder testified at the trial that it wasn't until police came to his family's home in Kentucky in 2003, after he had served time for a DWI homicide charge in Illinois, that he decided to come clean.

In the July 2007 trial, Special Prosecutor John McQuary called James Snyder to testify against Wertz. Snyder was charged as an accomplice in the murder. McQuary also called Belinda, to the stand.

Belinda testified she had previously lied about Wertz's whereabouts the night of the murder.

At the first hearing on Wertz's motion for a new trial in Oct. 2008, Circuit Judge Harold Erwin rejected Wertz's argument that he had received ineffective counsel. Again, in August of 2011, Wertz appealed to Judge Erwin for a new trial and the motion was again denied.

The hearing involved Wertz's request to remove his attorneys under claims that one of his attorneys was "loud, obnoxious and profane."

The attorney explained to the judge during the hearing, that it was only the second time he "has seen this man."

The attorney admitted he can be profane but said that, if he were to remain as legal counsel for Wertz, he would present his case in an orderly manner. Erwin denied Wertz's motion to dismiss his legal council on the grounds of ineffective council.

The attorneys were assigned to Wertz's case through the Arkansas Public Defenders Office.

Inmates on death row are entitled to Rule 37 hearings which, in some cases, allow them to have new trials if it is determined their council was ineffective during the initial trial.

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