BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama man drowned his new bride during a dive on Australia's Great Barrier Reef in hopes of collecting $210,000 in insurance benefits and belongings that included her diamond engagement ring, a prosecutor told jurors in opening statements Tuesday.
Gabe Watson, 34, planned the honeymoon on the other side of the world and then used it to kill 26-year-old Tina Thomas Watson just 11 days after they wed in October 2003, said Assistant Alabama Attorney General Andrew Arrington. Watson is being tried on a charge of capital murder. The defense argued the woman's death was an unfortunate accident compounded by her own actions.
Watson had plenty of motive to kill, Arrington said: He thought he could make $210,000 by collecting on a life insurance policy and a separate travel policy. Australian police didn't believe Watson's varying tales about what happened the day his wife drowned, Arrington said, and neither should jurors.
"Tina trusted her husband. She felt safe diving with him," Arrington said in quiet, measured tones.
The prosecution contends Watson turned off his wife's air supply while both were underwater and held her in a bear-hug until she lost consciousness. Watson turned the air back on and let her sink to her death before swimming to the top, prosecutors say.
As Arrington spoke, the jury of eight women and six men looked at a haunting underwater photo taken by another diver of the death scene. It showed Tina Watson sprawled in deep water as Watson swam to the surface.
Defense lawyer Brett Bloomston said the entire prosecution is based on "bumbling law enforcement" in Australia believing that a problem with Watson's dive computer — which resembles a big wristwatch — proved he killed the woman he loved. That mistake early in the investigation made police wrongly see innocent actions and circumstances as proof of a crime, Bloomston said.
Rather than being murdered, Tina Watson struggled and knocked off her husband's air supply and diving mask, forcing him to resurface without her, Bloomston said. She drowned on her own, he said.
"This is a tragic case. What's even more traffic is the blame Gabe has had to live with this last number of years," he said.
Watson already has served 18 months in prison in Australia after pleading guilty to manslaughter in his wife's death, but Circuit Judge Tommy Nail told jurors previously that the case involved negligence, not murder.
The judge previously turned down defense claims that trying Watson on a murder charge in Alabama was unconstitutional since he already was prosecuted in Australia. He faces a sentence of life without parole if convicted.
Bloomston denied that Watson had any reason to kill his wife, arguing that the woman's father was the beneficiary on her life insurance policy. That policy was worth only $33,000, not the $165,000 suggested by prosecutors, Bloomston said, and a separate travel policy for $45,000 was only to cover the cost of the trip.
"There was no financial motive," he said.
Bloomston argued that Tina Watson contributed to her own death by waiving an orientation dive and placing too much weight in a device meant to help her stay underwater during the dive. She panicked once during a diving class in a flooded suburban rock quarry, Bloomston said, suggesting that she may have panicked again during the fatal dive.
"It's all part of this perfect storm of bad circumstances," Bloomston told jurors.
Despite prosecutors' attempts to portray Watson as a scuba expert, both he and his wife were "very inexperienced divers" who got into trouble in the heavy currents near a shipwreck on the Australian coast, he said.
As attorneys spoke, Watson's second wife, Kim Watson, sat in the courtroom with his family.