Clark County

Trial begins this week in case of girl beaten, burned

In the last few hours of Michaela Watkins' life, the severely underweight 10-year-old was held in scalding water and beaten with an object similar to a 2-inch-by-4-inch piece of lumber.

When police found Michaela at her father and stepmother's apartment on March 11, 2007, the girl had seven fractured ribs, bruises on her face and chest and skin-peeling burns on her buttocks and the backs of her legs.

This week, a Clark County jury will assemble to decide whether Patrick and Joy Watkins, Michaela's father and stepmother, are responsible for the girl's death.

Jury selection for the Watkinses' murder trial will begin Tuesday in Winchester. They have pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys have expressed doubt that an impartial jury can be seated in Clark County because of the amount of pretrial publicity that has surrounded the case since March 2007.

Leta Baharestan, Patrick Watkins' attorney, argued at a May 1 hearing that the trial should be moved out of the county. Baharestan said there had been extensive newspaper and television coverage of the case and a public memorial service held at the county courthouse in the spring. Clark Circuit Judge William Jennings later denied the request.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Heidi Engel said she is confident that a jury can be seated.

"I absolutely believe we'll be able to pick a jury in Clark County, Kentucky," Engel said.

Patrick and Joy Watkins have said that Michaela's death was an accident. They initially told police that Michaela burned herself March 10, 2007, in hot water in the bathtub and then slipped and fell down the stairs.

A medical examiner determined that Michaela died from respiratory failure caused by blunt-force trauma to her chest. Based on her body temperature and the amount of rigor mortis that had set in, the Clark County coroner said, Michaela had been dead at least five hours before police were called.

Michaela came to live with the Watkinses after she and her brother were taken away from her mother and placed in foster care.

Family members and neighbors have said that Michaela's life with her father and stepmother was filled with verbal and physical abuse. They have said they had seen the couple slap Michaela, curse at her and call her names.

The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.