Questions linger in honeymoon death of US woman

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Associated Press

Posted on December 3, 2010 at 6:34 AM

Updated Friday, Dec 3 at 12:08 PM

MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) — Married for 11 days, Gabe and Tina Watson strapped on their scuba dive equipment for a chance to explore a 100-year-old shipwreck in the natural underwater wonder that is Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The Alabama couple splashed into the water on their 2003 honeymoon halfway around the world, and the dive soon turned horrific — 26-year-old Tina Watson's lifeless body began drifting toward the ocean floor. Was it a tragic accident, as her husband claimed? Or did Gabe Watson deliberately disconnect her air supply, then hold her in a bear hug, drowning his new wife, as Alabama authorities contend?

Gabe Watson, dubbed the "Honeymoon Killer" by Australian media, pleaded guilty to manslaughter there for not doing enough to save his wife. Now, the case is back in the United States. Alabama prosecutors believe his 18-month prison stint was too lenient, and they think they can get a murder conviction on home soil.

The case is ripe with international legal issues, but legal experts say there's no reason Gabe Watson can't be tried again for the same crime in the U.S., in part because prosecutors allege he concocted a plot to kill his wife in Alabama, supposedly for a life insurance payout. Defense attorneys say there was never such a plan or policy, and they want the case dismissed.

Gabe and Tina Watson met while both were attending classes at University of Alabama at Birmingham, a sprawling urban campus in downtown Birmingham, not far from their homes. They started dating in 2002 after she broke up with a boyfriend. Her father, Tommy Thomas, recalled how she told her parents about meeting a "very nice man" in her classes, a man who was "funny and a little weird."

Gabe and Tina became engaged around Easter 2003 and were married Oct. 11. They jetted off to Australia, and Thomas said his daughter was excited about the trip. She had always wanted to visit the famous Sydney Opera House.

Watson initially wanted to start the honeymoon with the diving trip, Thomas said, but Tina talked him into going to Sydney first.

She was, Thomas said, "a beautiful girl."

"One of the divers on the dive boat said she was 'Miss Alabama beautiful, both inside and out,'" he said. "She would walk into a room and everybody in the room would start smiling and laughing."

His daughter had a passion for animals, liked to shop and loved romantic movies — her favorite was "Gone With The Wind."

The couple had graduated from UAB before their marriage, and he was working in his father's packaging business. She was working for a Birmingham area department store. Their lives were ahead of them.

Now Gabe Watson, indicted by an Alabama county grand jury on a capital murder charge, is in custody in Los Angeles. He is expected to return to his home state in the next several days to face new charges.

His attorneys said they will likely ask to dismiss the case on grounds of "double jeopardy," which prevents a defendant from being tried twice on similar charges.

But Bruce Zagaris, an international law expert in Washington, D.C., said the U.S. position in such cases has been that "unless the extradition treaty prohibits double jeopardy, then the U.S. can try the person again."

The treaty doesn't mention double jeopardy. Australia did hesitate to send Gabe Watson back, though, fearing he might face a possible death sentence. Australia does not have a death penalty and its leaders have been outspoken opponents to capital punishment.

Alabama Attorney General Troy King and federal authorities agreed he would not face the death penalty, though a conviction could carry a life term in prison.

Prosecutors want to know why Watson swam to get help instead of attempting to rescue his wife. Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska has described Watson as an experienced rescue diver who should have known not to leave his "dive buddy." Tina Watson was making one of her first dives in open water.

Watson's attorney, Brett Bloomston, said his client took a rescue course at a lake outside Birmingham, but did not have experience with open water rescues, particularly in a location like the Great Barrier Reef, with swift currents.

Watson initially was charged with murder in Australia, but after a lengthy investigation, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge.

One of the reasons for the plea was the uncertainty over exactly what happened as the couple began the fateful dive to the wreck of the SS Yongala, a passenger and steam freighter that sank during a storm in 1911 near the northeast Australia city of Townsville.

At a 19-day coroner's inquest in Australia, Watson said in a videotaped police interview that his wife began having trouble a few minutes into the dive and panicked. He said she clutched at his mask and pulled it off, and by the time he put it back on, she was sinking, arms outstretched toward him.

Gabe Watson swam away and one of the dive leaders pulled Tina Watson to the surface, but she could not be revived. Tests found nothing wrong with her diving gear, and an autopsy found no pre-existing medical condition. At the inquest, a fellow diver said he saw Watson engaged in an underwater "bear hug" with his petite wife.

Australian authorities said Gabe Watson also gave conflicting accounts, including that a strong current may have been a factor.

Valeska, the Alabama prosecutor, said much of their case will come from evidence gathered in Australia. He expects to bring investigators and other witnesses from Australia, and for the most part, Alabama officials have not conducted a separate probe.

Gabe Watson's attorney has also said there never was a life insurance policy that would have benefited his client. He said a $33,000 insurance payment was made to Tina Watson's father, not her husband.

"The Australians never could prove murder," Bloomston said.

But Thomas said his daughter told him shortly before the marriage that Watson wanted her to change the life insurance policy, a group policy she got at the department store where she worked. Thomas said she told him Watson wanted her to increase the amount of the policy and change the beneficiary to Watson, not her father.

He said he gave his daughter some advice.

"I told her to tell him it had been taken care of and when you come back from Australia take care of it then," Watson said.

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