Death of Tina Watson

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Death of Tina Watson
Time 11:27 a.m.
Date 22 October 2003 (2003-10-22)
Location Yongala wreck
Great Barrier Reef
Townsville, Queensland
Australia
Coordinates 19°18′27″S 147°37′31″E / 19.30750°S 147.62528°E / -19.30750; 147.62528Coordinates: 19°18′27″S 147°37′31″E / 19.30750°S 147.62528°E / -19.30750; 147.62528
Participants Tina and Gabe Watson
Outcome Death by drowning
Deaths Tina Watson
Burial Southern Heritage Cemetery, Pelham, Alabama, U.S.
Inquest Townsville
Coroner David Robert Glasgow
Suspect(s) David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson
Charges Murder
Convictions Manslaughter (Australia)

Christina Mae "Tina" Thomas Watson, a 26-year-old American from Alabama, died while scuba diving on her honeymoon in Queensland, Australia on 22 October 2003. She was a newlywed, having married a fellow American, David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson, 11 days earlier. He was initially charged by Queensland authorities with his wife's murder. This was changed to manslaughter with a guilty plea. He was subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment for her manslaughter.

At trial, evidence presented included Gabe Watson's differing accounts of what had happened on that day, of the couple's diving experience (or lack thereof), and of Tina Watson's life insurance. While he was serving his term, authorities in Alabama flagged an intention to charge him with murder at a later date. After his release, he was deported from Australia to Alabama. Australian authorities would only return him to the United States once an assurance was in place that Watson would not be sentenced to the death penalty if found guilty of murder. He was then charged by Alabama authorities with Tina Watson's murder and was put on trial. On 23 February 2012, Alabama judge Tommy Nail dismissed the murder case due to lack of evidence.

Death of Tina Watson[edit]

Gabe Watson met Tina Thomas while they were students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.[1] Tina took beginning diving lessons and earned her certification just before the two were married in October 2003. Watson, a purportedly qualified certified rescue diver,[2] had planned a scuba trip in the Great Barrier Reef for their honeymoon.[3]

A buoy marks the site of the SS Yongala

During an excursion on the dive boat Spoilsport to the site of the SS Yongala, a passenger ship that sank in 1911, Tina lost consciousness and sank to the bottom, 100 feet (30 m) below the water's surface within two minutes of beginning the dive.[4] Watson claimed the currents were stronger than they expected and that he responded to a signal from her to return to the dive rope where he noted a look of worry on her face before she accidentally knocked his mask loose. When he recovered his sight, she was sinking too quickly for him to retrieve her and he surfaced to get help. He also stated that an ear problem prevented him from diving deeper to help her and that there was nothing in his training as a rescue diver "about how to get somebody" in trouble to the surface.[5][6]

Other divers were nearby at the time, including Dr. Stanley Stutz, who saw Watson engaged in an underwater "bear hug" with his "flailing" wife, after which he headed for the surface while his wife fell to the ocean floor. A fellow diver, Gary Stempler, photographed Watson by chance while taking a picture of his own wife that showed Tina in the background. The photo revealed Tina lying on the ocean floor, something that did not come to light until a couple of weeks later when the pictures were developed.[7] Watson climbed aboard the Spoilsport and alerted dive instructor Wade Singleton, who brought Tina to the surface. She was taken aboard the adjacent dive boat Jazz II, where a doctor tried to resuscitate her while Watson remained on the Spoilsport.[8]

Autopsy report[edit]

The day following Tina's death, an autopsy was performed by Professor David Williams, consultant forensic pathologist to the Queensland Coroner. Williams found florid evidence of air embolism, but no degenerative disease. He gave the cause of death as drowning.[9]

Investigation[edit]

As Tina Watson's death was unexpected, it was investigated by the State Coroner's office. A coronial inquiry was held, as is the usual practice in Australia. Gabe Watson gave evidence to the inquest through his lawyers and to the Queensland police. The incident came under investigation due to the implausible and conflicting statements given by Watson. He declined to return to Australia and did not testify during the inquest. During the inquest, prosecutors submitted evidence that Watson's story contradicted the record of his actions stored by his dive computer. They suggested the possibility that he turned off Tina's air regulator and held her until she was unconscious, then turned the air back on and let her sink before surfacing himself. As evidence, they described painstaking multiple re-enactments of various scenarios conducted by police divers. Tina's father claimed that Gabe Watson had asked Tina, shortly before their wedding, to increase her life insurance and make him the sole beneficiary.[10][11]

Civil action commenced in Alabama[edit]

In March 2005, Watson launched legal action in Alabama's Jefferson County Circuit Court to recoup the cost of their trip after the travel insurance company refused a payout. He was seeking $45,000 for the accidental death plus compensation for trip interruption, medical expenses, phone calls, taxi fares, fees for extra credit card statements and unspecified punitive damages for mental and emotional anguish. The action was dismissed in May 2008 at Watson's request on the grounds the Australian investigation into his wife's death caused him "to reasonably apprehend that he risks self-incrimination in this case". His Australian legal team believed "it was not in his best interest" to pursue the damages claim and Watson's U.S.-based lawyer, Bob Austin, added that his client would not be voluntarily "going back to Australia".[12]

Indictment[edit]

On 19 June 2008, the Coroner laid the following charge:

That on the 22nd day of October 2003 at the site of the historical shipwreck Yongala forty-eight nautical miles south east from the port of Townsville in the state of Queensland David Gabriel Watson murdered Christina Mae Watson.[9]

It was reported that the Coroner found "that Watson likely killed his 26-year-old wife by turning off her air supply and holding her in an "underwater bear hug" until she was dead",[13] however the coroner made no such finding.[9]

Trial and sentence in Australia[edit]

David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson
Born (1977-03-05) 5 March 1977 (age 37)
Occupation Salesman
Criminal charge
Murder
Criminal penalty
4.5 years, to be suspended after 1.5 years
Criminal status
Released and deported
Spouse(s) Tina Thomas (2003-2003 (11 days)); her death
Kim Lewis (2008-present)
Parents David and Glenda Watson
Conviction(s) Manslaughter

The Queensland state coroner found in 2008 evidence regarded as enough to try Watson for murder. He travelled voluntarily from the United States to Australia in May 2009 to face trial. At the trial on 5 June 2009, Watson pleaded not guilty to murder and guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of manslaughter. Crown prosecutor Brendan Campbell pointed out that over time Watson had given police 16 different versions of what had happened to Tina and that none of those versions matched what the only eyewitness had seen. When Tina was brought to the surface her regulator was still in her mouth, her tank was still had air and tests indicated no faults with her equipment. The prosecutor described Watson as an experienced diver trained in rescuing panicked divers, who had allowed his wife to sink to the ocean floor without making any serious attempt to retrieve her. He did not inflate her BCD, or remove her weight belt, and failed in his duty as her dive buddy by not sharing his (alternate) air source with her.[8]

The prosecutor claimed Watson unlawfully killed Tina by failing in duty of care to fulfill his obligations as her "dive buddy" during the scuba dive. He said that when Tina grabbed for his alternate air source, he did not give it to her and then swam away from her as she sank to the bottom of the sea bed. Gabe was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, to be suspended after serving only twelve months.

Reaction to the sentence[edit]

Tina's family said that Gabe Watson's twelve month term was an embarrassment to Australia.[14] The day following the trial, Alabama Attorney-General Troy King vowed to lodge an appeal with the Queensland Supreme Court. King also wrote to Queensland Attorney-General Cameron Dick. Fairfax Newspapers reported the letter was leaked to them and published part of it.[15]

The Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions, Tony Moynihan SC, issued a statement the next business day, which said: "The decision to accept Mr Watson’s plea of guilty to manslaughter was made after a careful and thorough examination of the admissible evidence, and was not taken lightly. Given the complex circumstantial nature of the case, Mr Watson’s admission that he breached his duty to render assistance to his wife ultimately meant there was no reasonable prospect of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was guilty of murder."[16] On 18 June 2009, Dick announced the state would appeal against the inadequacy of Watson's sentence.[17]

Appeal[edit]

The appeal was heard by the Queensland Court of Appeals on 17 July 2009. The Crown asked the court to increase the prison time Watson would have to serve to two-and-a-half years. The defence argued that Watson had had a momentary lapse in judgment, had been accused of a crime he did not commit, and had voluntarily returned to Australia to co-operate with the court, the penalty imposed by the trial judge was fair and just.[18] The findings on appeal were handed down on 18 September 2009. Two members allowed the prosecution's appeal, increasing Watson's period of incarceration by six months to a total of 18 months. One justice by minority opinion was in favour of dismissing the appeal.[19]

Further incidents[edit]

Tina Watson is buried in her native Pelham, Alabama. Her remains were exhumed and moved in 2007 to a different lot bought by her widower.[20] After being informed by her family that flowers and gifts were repeatedly being vandalized or disappearing from the grave site, even when chained down, a police officer investigated. On hidden surveillance videos, he witnessed Watson removing them with bolt cutters and throwing them in trash cans.[21] Watson later said he removed them because they were "big, gaudy, plastic arrangements."[22] Her grave was unmarked until 2009 when Watson provided a foot marker, prompting her father to request her body be returned for reburial. In 2011, the Probate Court removed Watson as administrator of Tina's estate, appointing her father who also wants her school and college pictures and yearbooks returned. Watson has appealed against the ruling and refused to provide the court with an inventory of Tina's possessions. Pending Watson's trial, the Circuit Court ordered him to stay away from the grave.[23]

On 15 August 2008, Watson married Kim Lewis. Reporters have described her as a "Tina Watson lookalike".[24]

Trial in United States[edit]

Alabama investigation[edit]

In May 2010, Alabama Attorney-General Troy King announced he had information not yet made public and wanted to try Watson for capital murder. King petitioned Australia for the evidence held by police but was refused access until he gave an undertaking that the death penalty would not be imposed as required under Australian law. This condition has been strongly criticised by King and Don Valeska, chief of the attorney-general's violent crime division, who stated: "If an Australian woman was killed here, we would immediately send the evidence there. We would not presume to tell the Australian authorities how to run their criminal justice system".[25] In response to the announcement, Watson's parents came to the defence of their son, breaking their public silence on the case. Friends and family of Watson questioned whether he had any motive for the murder noting, that his affection for Tina had seemed genuine, there was no life insurance policy naming him as beneficiary and he appeared to be emotionally devastated for an extended time following Tina's death.[26]

In June 2010, King assured the Queensland Attorney-General he would not seek the death penalty if Watson was tried in the United States for his wife's death.[27] In August 2010, it was announced Watson would be released in November and likely to be deported to the US, where he faced being charged with murder. Valeska stated he would pursue an additional charge of kidnapping by deception.[28] The case was placed before a grand jury in Birmingham, Alabama in October 2010.[29]

Watson was released from prison on 10 November 2010. He was transferred to an immigration detention centre while his deportation was delayed.[30] During this time Australian authorities sought further written assurances from the US Attorney General that he would not face the death penalty in Alabama if convicted of murder. Under international human rights law, Australia could not deport Watson if he faced execution in his home country.[31] On 25 November 2010, he was deported to the United States and immediately arrested.[32]

Arrest[edit]

Alabama prosecutors charged Gabe Watson with murder at the conclusion of his prison sentence in Australia after finding what they claimed was evidence he had plotted to kill his wife while still in the United States.[33] A Birmingham grand jury indicted Watson on murder charges in October 2010. In July 2011, the Circuit Court set the trial date on 13 February 2012; Watson was released on bond.[6]

New evidence[edit]

Colin McKenzie, a key diving expert in the original investigation who had maintained that "a diver with Watson's training should have been able to bring Tina up", subsequently retracted much of his testimony after being provided with Tina and Gabe's diver logs, certificates and medical histories, to which he had not previously had access. McKenzie claimed Gabe Watson should not have been allowed in the water and never as a dive buddy for his wife, who had no open water scuba experience. Tina Watson had had heart surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat two years earlier but on her dive application had stated that she had never had heart problems or surgery. Professor Michael "Mike" Bennett, a leading expert in dive medicine, stated that Tina was unfit to dive without clearance from a cardiologist. Gabe Watson had received his rescue certification, normally a four day course, after completing a two day course in an Alabama quarry. Not only had his rescue certificate expired but he had no rescue experience and little open water experience.[34][35]

According to McKenzie "He had no hope of being competent, he could barely save himself [that day] let alone his wife, I don't believe he intended to kill her." Revelations that Watson needed help to don his diving equipment that day underscored that he was a "dangerous amateur" who showed "a complete lack of courage" when he abandoned his wife. The dive company had offered an orientation and guided dive with a dive master, which both Tina and Gabe Watson had refused. Company head Mike Ball said his people took Watson at his word, believing he was an experienced and certified rescue diver. The company later pleaded guilty to contravening safety standards and was fined $6500, plus costs of $1500.[34][35]

Dismissal of the case[edit]

Alabama judge Tommy Nail ruled that evidence of Watson's behavior following Tina's death was inadmissible. Nail also blocked Tina's father Tommy Thomas from giving evidence regarding Watson's alleged attempts to increase Tina's life insurance. On 23 February 2012, Nail acquitted Gabe Watson for lack of evidence without the defense needing to present its case. Nail said that the state's evidence was "sorely lacking" and that the prosecution could not prove that Watson had any financial motive. Prosecutor Don Valeska said that this was the first time he had had a trial end in a judge's acquittal in the 41 years he had been trying cases. Regarding the judge's decision, Thomas said, "It should have gone to the jury for them to decide."[36][37]

Media coverage[edit]

A feature on the death of Tina Watson was broadcast in a 90-minute account that aired on Dateline NBC on 19 May 2008.[38] An examination of Tina Watson's death and Gabe Watson's subsequent trial and appeal was published by The Age on 17 July 2010. The author was Walkley Award winning investigative journalist, Peter Patrick.[39] A feature on the death of Watson and her husband's Alabama acquittal was broadcast on an episode of the Australian 60 Minutes on 25 March 2012.

Lifetime produced a made-for-TV movie, Fatal Honeymoon, based on the death of Tina Watson, starring Harvey Keitel, Billy Miller and Amber Clayton.[40] It premiered on 25 August 2012.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Flynn, Asher; Fitz-Gibbon, Kate (25 February 2013). "New book A Second Chance for Justice asks new questions about the case of the "honeymoon killer" Gabe Watson". Herald Sun. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  2. ^ "Sinister twist to death on the reef". The Australian. 26 April 2007. Retrieved 8 November 2013. 
  3. ^ Thompson, Tuck (16 February 2012). "Gabe Watson 'hung out and asked for hugs' on other dive boat as others tried to save Tina's life". The Courier-Mail. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  4. ^ Hewitt, Bill (7 July 2008). "Honeymoon Death Dive". People. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  5. ^ Full transcript of Gabe Watson's interview with Townsville Police report, Townsville Bulletin 23 January 2008
  6. ^ a b Thompson, Tuck (13 July 2011). "Gabe Watson to go to trial in February 2012 in Alabama charged with murdering wife Tina". The Advertiser. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  7. ^ Shears, Richard (22 November 2007). "Diver's dying moments captured by tourist". News.com.au. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  8. ^ a b The Advertiser "By the time Gabe stood trial, prosecutors noted he'd given 16 different versions of what happened", pg. 42-47, 5 September 2010
  9. ^ a b c "Inquest into the death of Christina Mae WATSON known as Tina WATSON" (PDF). Coroners Court of Queensland. Townsville: Queensland Courts. 20 June 2008. Retrieved 3 November 2013. 
  10. ^ Shears, Richard (21 November 2007). "Horrific picture of drowned diver captured in underwater tourist snap - but was it murder?". Mail Online. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  11. ^ Butler, Nicole (20 June 2008). "American charged over Barrier Reef diving death". PM. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  12. ^ Balogh, Stefanie (21 May 2008). "Gabe Watson drops action, fearing 'self-incrimination'". News.com.au. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  13. ^ "US diver accused of killing wife in Qld". thewest.com.au. 24 October 2008. Retrieved 21 July 2009. 
  14. ^ Bentley, Amelia (5 June 2009). "Honeymoon scuba killer's 12-month sentence 'ludicrous'". The Age. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  15. ^ Duff, Eamonn; Bachelard, Michael (7 June 2009). "US challenges killer husband wrist-slap". The Age. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  16. ^ Kellett, Christine (9 June 2009). "We couldn't prove it: DPP". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  17. ^ "Honeymoon killer appeal: father's thanks". The Sydney Morning Herald. Australian Associated Press. 18 June 2009. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  18. ^ Oberhardt, Mark (17 July 2009). "Judge too soft in Gabe Watson sentencing, says solicitor-general". The Courier-Mail. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  19. ^ Calligeros, Marissa (18 September 2009). "Jail term extended for honeymoon dive killer". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  20. ^ Ham, Paul (28 September 2008). "Tina Watson: the bride who drowned at the Barrier Reef". The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 2 February 2010.  (registration required)
  21. ^ Toulson, Andy (25 January 2008). "Caught on film". Townsville Bulletin. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  22. ^ "Why I took flowers from Tina's grave: Honeymoon killer Gabe Watson breaks silence on US TV". The Courier-Mail. Australian Associated Press. 1 March 2012. Retrieved 4 November 2013. 
  23. ^ Thompson, Tuck (12 July 2011). "'Honeymoon killer' Gabe Watson refuses to hand over Tina Thomas' body". News.com.au. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  24. ^ Michael, Peter (21 October 2008). "Suspected dive killer Gabe Watson marries lookalike bride". The Courier-Mail. Retrieved 23 August 2011. 
  25. ^ Thomas-Ogle, Marienne (9 February 2010). "Australian DA wants no death penalty if charges filed here in honeymoon death". The Birmingham News. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  26. ^ Robinson, Carol (9 May 2010). "Gabe Watson's family speaks 7 years after his wife, Tina Watson, drowned on Australian honeymoon". The Birmingham News. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  27. ^ "US rules out death penalty for honeymoon dive killing". The Sydney Morning Herald. Associated Press. 30 June 2010. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  28. ^ Martin, Lisa (14 August 2010). "Honeymoon killer may face new charge". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 August 2010. 
  29. ^ Paul, Nathan (7 October 2010). "Date set in honeymoon dive killer case". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  30. ^ "Honeymoon killer Gabe Watson heads to Melbourne". News.com.au. Australian Associated Press. 11 November 2010. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  31. ^ "Australia in dilemma over deportation of Honeymoon Killer to the U.S.". International Business Times. 11 November 2010. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  32. ^ Calligeros, Marissa (25 November 2010). "Honeymoon killer Gabe Watson leaves Australia". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 November 2010. 
  33. ^ Kellett, Christine (9 June 2009). "Great Barrier Reef honeymoon dive killer 'in US kill plot'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  34. ^ a b Patrick, Peter (22 April 2011). "Death at 27 metres". The Age. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  35. ^ a b "Watson a 'coward but not a killer'". The Age. Australian Associated Press. 22 April 2011. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  36. ^ Martin, Rick (24 February 2012). "Murder case dismissed in death of newlywed wife". CNN. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  37. ^ Jay Reeves. "Husband's acquittal in drowning unexpected", The Advertiser, 25 February 2012, pg. 64
  38. ^ Murphy, Dennis (19 May 2008). "Mystery in the deep blue sea". Dateline (NBC). Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  39. ^ Patrick, Peter (17 July 2010). "Death on reef mystery". The Age. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  40. ^ "Lifetime movie Fatal Honeymoon takes on story of Gabe and Tina Watson (video)". 

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