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California trial opens for accused "Alphabet" killer

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN RAFAEL, California (Reuters) - A retired photographer accused of the serial "Alphabet murders" in California went on trial on Monday acting as his own attorney, joining prosecutors in picking jurors who will decide whether he is guilty of slaying four prostitutes.

Joseph Naso, 79, faces the death penalty if convicted of more than one murder during his trial in Marin County Superior Court. Although he has no legal training, the defendant insisted upon representing himself in the proceedings.

Naso, who has admitted a penchant for photographing women in nylons and high heels but denies killing anyone, is charged with first-degree murder in the slayings of four women in northern California -- two in the 1970s and two more in the 1990s.

The killings of the four women were dubbed the "Alphabet murders" because of the matching initial letter found in each victim's first and last name.

Dressed in a suit and tie, Naso said "good morning" as he greeted the first batch of prospective jurors, bringing his hands together as if praying and bowed.

Planned witnesses for the prosecution include Naso's ex-wife, one of the slain prostitute's pimps, and a woman who claims that Naso drugged and raped her in Berkeley in 1961.

A prominent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, also is expected to testify. Naso cross-examined Dietz at a pretrial hearing earlier this month.

Two of the women whom Naso is accused of killing were strangled. The bodies of the other two were too badly decomposed to determine the cause of their deaths.

Naso was arrested in 2010 after probation officers in Nevada found what prosecutors described as diaries of sexual assaults and "a list of dump sites" in Naso's Reno, Nevada, home. The numbered, handwritten roster lists nine California locations and one in Florida where authorities believe he disposed of victims.

Officers had gone to Naso's house under the terms of his probation for a shoplifting offense at a South Lake Tahoe store where he worked.

In addition to the journal entries in question, investigators also recovered from Naso's home ammunition, guns, handcuffs, erotically dressed mannequins, and hundreds of photographs of naked women, many of whom appeared to be dead or unconscious.

In Naso's living room, authorities said, they found an invitation to an execution at San Quentin State Prison, site of California's death row, about 6 miles from the San Rafael jail where Naso has been held without bail since April 2011.

An investigation is continuing into the fate of six other women included in what authorities call Naso's "list of 10."

Prosecutors have linked Naso to the disappearance of one of the six, Renee Shapiro, a Bob Dylan fan who went by the name of the musician's former wife, Sara Dylan, and vanished in 1992. Investigators said they found Shapiro's driver's license and passport in Naso's safe-deposit box, as well as newspaper articles about two of the murders with which he is charged.

Attorneys for the prosecution contend that Naso drugged his victims before raping or trying to rape them, then killed them and discarded their naked or scantily clad bodies in remote locations.

In a jailhouse interview with Reuters last year, Naso said he had never even met three of his alleged victims and that his most violent crime was an attempted rape in New York in 1958.

"I look back and think, 'Geez, that's terrible,'" he said. "But I haven't done anything since then."

During a hearing in January, Naso said his journal entries had been misconstrued. "I sometimes use the term 'rape' to mean I scored, I made out," he said.

Jury selection is expected to last four to six weeks, and the trial could extend through November 15, Judge Andrew Sweet said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

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