BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (AP) — A man who spent 18 months in an Australian jail for the drowning death of his wife during a diving trip in that country was acquitted of murder in Alabama on Thursday.
A judge ended the trial with his acquittal ruling before the defense had even presented its case, saying prosecutors lacked evidence to prove Gabe Watson intentionally killed his wife.
Prosecutor Don Valeska, head of the violent crimes division for the state attorney general's office, said he never before had a trial end in a judge's acquittal in 41 years of trying cases, though that does sometimes happen, legal experts say.
Watson, 34, had faced life in prison without parole if convicted of murdering his wife of 11 days, 26-year-old Tina Thomas Watson, in 2003. The couple was diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Watson pleaded guilty in Australia to a manslaughter charge involving negligence.
Circuit Judge Tommy Nail agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors failed to show Watson drowned her for insurance money. The only eyewitness testified he thought Watson was trying to save the woman.
The state's evidence was "sorely lacking" and did not prove Watson had any financial motive. Jurors never got to deliberate.
"I don't think anyone knows for sure what happened in the water down there," said Nail, who repeatedly clashed with prosecutors during both the trial and earlier hearings.
Defense attorneys had argued that Watson didn't stand to gain anything monetarily because Tina Watson's father was the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. They contended her death was an accident.
Gabe Watson's father, David, hugged his son in the courtroom after the judge made his ruling. He said every court that had looked at the case determined Gabe did not intentionally kill his wife.
"I'm just so relieved. Hopefully he can put his life back together," David Watson said.
"I hope everyone can begin to heal. The rest of his life will determine his legacy. Gabe is a good kid."
Gabe Watson left the courtroom hand-in-hand with his second wife without commenting to reporters.
Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, had testified earlier in the day. He described how his family's grief and shock over Tina Watson's death turned to suspicion of Gabe Watson.
Valeska, the prosecutor, walked with his arm around Tommy Thomas, who appeared to be in shock and stunned by the judge's decision.
"It should have gone to the jury for them to decide," Thomas said of the judge's decision.
Thomas had testified earlier that shortly after the death, his wife, Cindy, was worried about Gabe Watson's condition. However, evidence showed relations between Watson and his wife's family frayed quickly as the Thomases began having doubts about what happened and Gabe Watson began asking for Tina Watson's belongings.
Gabe Watson's father called to tell them about the woman's death more than 15 hours after she drowned, Thomas said, and Tina Watson's family never heard from Gabe Watson until they attempted to contact him through the U.S. consulate in Australia.
Thomas said that in a phone call from Australia, Watson claimed his wife gave him a thumbs up underwater, indicating she wanted to go back to the surface. Watson said he was leading her back to a rope when she panicked, knocked off his mask and air hose, and began sinking, according to Thomas.
But during a later talk at a lawyer's office, Thomas said, Watson changed his story and said the woman indicated she wanted to go back to the rope leading to the top rather than go directly to the surface. Staring directly at Watson from the witness stand, Thomas said he asked his former son-in-law at that time: "When Tina gave him the thumbs up sign to go to the surface, why didn't he just take her to the surface?"
The judge blocked Thomas from testifying about Watson's alleged desire to increase the woman's life insurance policy, a blow for prosecutors who earlier had been barred from presenting other evidence about Watson's actions after the death.
Montre Carodine, a law professor at the University of Alabama, said the judge's decision to end the trial without the defense even presenting evidence was a "serious indictment" of the prosecution's case, particularly considering it was a capital trial.
"It means the evidence was weak," she said.