Man goes to trial in Alabama in wife's death
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A dream honeymoon of scuba diving on Australia's Great Barrier Reef turned into a terrible nightmare, and the horror is about to play out years later in a courtroom in Alabama.
An Alabama man who served prison time in Australia after pleading guilty to a reduced charged in the death of his bride goes to trial today, accused of murdering her for insurance money. Tina Thomas Watson drowned while scuba diving on the reef just days after her wedding in October 2003.
Gabe Watson is charged with capital murder, which normally is punishable by death, but faces life in prison without parole if convicted because of a deal the state made years ago with Australian officials to guarantee his return to the United States.
Tina Watson's father said the family has endured eight years of delays and disappointments in getting to the trial date.
"It's been a traumatic, excruciating ordeal," said Tommy Thomas of suburban Helena.
Watson, 34, and Tina met in college. They wed and went to Australia to dive -- a trip prosecutors claim Watson meticulously planned so he could kill the 26-year-old woman and make it seem like an accident.
Watson is accused of killing Tina Watson by turning off her air supply and bear-hugging her as she drowned while diving on a shipwreck in 2003. Don Valeska, an assistant state attorney general handling the case, argues Watson killed the woman believing he could collect on a modest life insurance policy.
Originally charged with murder in Australia, Watson avoided a jury trial there by pleading to a charge of manslaughter and serving 18 months for not doing enough to save his wife. He was an experienced diver; she was a novice.
The defense will argue during the trial that Tina Watson's death was an unintended, horrible mishap. One of Watson's lawyers said the man, who is free on bond and has remarried, was anxious to get the trial started.
"He's nervous. He's ready to get this trial behind him so he can be a free person," defense lawyer Joseph Basgier said after a hearing last month.
The state has subpoenaed people from as far away as Australia and California to testify about what happened that day on a dive boat called the Spoilsport, but it's unclear how many will take the stand. The defense has subpoenaed potential witnesses, including former Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who pushed for state charges against Watson.
Tommy Thomas said he is glad his former son-in-law will finally face a jury.
"This is our last chance to get justice, and we know it," Thomas said. "But we're confident, and if the bulk of the evidence is presented, it doesn't matter whether it's a jury in Alabama or a jury in Australia, we're going to get a just outcome."