SAN RAFAEL, California (Reuters) - An elderly California photographer charged with the slayings of four prostitutes dating back to the 1970s opened his own defense at his serial-murder trial on Monday, declaring to jurors, "I'm not the monster that killed these women."
Joseph Naso, 79, who has admitted a penchant for taking erotic pictures of women and displayed dozens of such photos in court on Monday, stood stoop-shouldered in a blue suit and tie, his hands crossed behind his back, as he politely greeted the 12 men and women who will decide his fate.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You're a welcome sight. I've been waiting two years and two months for this day to tell my side," Naso said.
He went on to discount the government's case as little more than "theories and opinions," saying, "They don't even have circumstantial evidence."
Naso is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of four northern California women, all of them prostitutes, whose slayings were dubbed the "alphabet murders" because the first and last name of each victim starts with the same letter in the alphabet.
Two victims, Roxene Roggasch, 18, and Carmen Colon, 22, were killed in the 1970s. Two others, Pamela Parson, 38, and Tracy Tafoya, 31, were slain in the 1990s.
Prosecutors contend that Naso drugged his victims before raping or trying to rape them, then killed the women and discarded of their naked or scantily clad bodies in remote locations.
During prosecutors' opening statement on Monday morning, jurors were shown graphic photos of the victims as they appeared when their remains were found.
"The defendant is a serial rapist and murderer," said Marin County Deputy District Attorney Rosemary Slote told the jury.
Although he has no legal training, the defendant has insisted upon representing himself in the proceedings against him, for which he could face the death penalty if convicted of more than one more murder.
"I'm not the monster that killed these women. I don't do that," he said at one point during a rambling, two-hour, 10-minute opening statement. "I dated, I danced, I took pictures, but I don't kill people, and there's no evidence of that."
He acknowledged knowing one of his alleged victims, Parson, who by his account he picked up as a hitchhiker and brought to his house. There, he said, she offered to have sex with him. But he said he declined and took photos of her instead.
Naso was arrested in 2010 after authorities searching his home in Nevada found what prosecutors have described as diaries of sexual assaults and a list of victim dumping grounds, along with hundreds of photographs of naked women, many of whom appeared to be dead or unconscious
It was only then that investigators began to put a serial murder case together against Naso, who was at the time on probation for shoplifting.
Naso insisted on Monday that "not one picture of a deceased person" was found at his home. Naso showed the jury a collection of roughly 50 photographs he had taken over the years, mostly of female subjects, many of them topless or in various stages of undress, interspersed with photos from weddings, a college sorority gathering, a nursing school graduation and a church group.
Of prosecutors' assertions that Naso's DNA was found on nylons from his ex-wife that he allegedly used to strangle one of his victims, he said such evidence was inconclusive.
As to journal notations attributed to him by prosecutors that refer to him having "raped" a woman, he told jurors, "That's the way I talk. It's just loose talk that I used. 'I pick up a nice broad and I raped her.' It's got nothing to do with forcible rape in the way we usually think."
He concluded by saying, "When this trial is over, I'd like you to find me not guilty so I can go home and see my children."
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker