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Mom: I let my son's killer go free

By Ted Rowlands
CNN

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

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CNN correspondent Ted Rowlands on location in Salt Lake City.

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Behind the Scenes
Utah
Salt Lake City (Utah)
Crime, Law and Justice

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- Jennifer Watts is reliving a parent's worst nightmare -- the death of her child. But in her quiet, emotional, yet articulate way, she is revealing the true, lingering horror of her story -- how she may have helped her son's killer elude justice forever.

"It's all real, everything that I imagined is true, and everything that I've lived with all these years is true," she said in her home last week.

"It's hard to look back on everything and realize that I defended the man that killed my son." (Watch what she knew and when -- 7:16)

For even though the murderer walked into a police station and confessed to police officers, the justice system cannot touch him.

The taped confession of what happened nearly 15 years ago is chilling. When Jennifer Watts came home from church to a quiet house, she simply assumed that her young son Paul was asleep.

He had been fine that Sunday morning in February 1991, and Watts' live-in boyfriend Michael Lane had stayed home to watch the 20-month-old.

But within hours the nightmare began for Watts, then a 20-year-old single mom, the nightmare that has been made worse again and again over the last 15 years.

For Paul, who was known as P.J., was not dreaming in his crib, but lying there dead -- murdered, with multiple head injuries.

Watts and her boyfriend, Lane, had lived together for two months. He was charged with murder and tried. But at that time neither Watts nor the jury -- perhaps swayed by Watts -- believed Lane guilty and he was acquitted.

Watts stayed with Lane for four more years until one day when she saw his extremely violent side and suddenly realized he had beaten her son to death.

"He kicked the dog, and the dog's leg was broken, I mean bad broken, and at that moment, when I saw that, that I looked at him and I said 'That's what happened, wasn't it, that day -- you lost your temper, P.J. was crying and you lost your temper right?' "

Lane insisted he was innocent for another decade and when he finally confessed to Salt Lake City police a few months ago, there was nothing the justice system could do. He had been tried and acquitted and under the "double jeopardy" provision of the U.S. Constitution could not be tried again.

So, not only did Watts find her baby murdered, not only did she stand by the man she later found out killed him, but now she also has to live knowing that he will never pay for his crime.

"He stole a part of me I'll never get back. I'm a different person now ... angry ... it's not fair," she told me through tears at an interview.

She says she is upset and embarrassed that she could not see what others thought so obvious -- that Michael Lane, at home alone with the little blond boy who had just been learning to walk and talk, was the man who had to have killed her son.

There is also the gut-wrenching guilt that her loyalty, her belief that someone else or maybe even an accident was to blame for P.J.'s death, helped to persuade the jury that any doubts about Lane's guilt were reasonable. Prosecutor James Cope said he thought that some of the jurors might have said that if the boy's mother was not convinced, how could they be?

Watts has moved from Utah now, but says she finds it difficult to move on with her life, thinking every day of P.J. and how he would be 17 now. And she thinks of how Michael Lane can admit -- in graphic detail -- how he killed the child by repeatedly hurling the child onto the floor in an attempt to stop him from crying, and yet not be punished.

"There was a little life there and it needs to mean something, and it needs to mean something to everybody," Watts said.

"Nobody's been held accountable for it and that's not right."

Michael Lane refused CNN's request for an interview.

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