By Jay Reeves ,AP
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — 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 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.