BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - A judge on Thursday acquitted an Alabama man accused of killing his new wife on a honeymoon scuba dive trip in Australia.
Prosecutors said Gabe Watson, motivated by potential insurance payouts, had drowned his wife Tina in October 2003 by turning off her oxygen supply during their dive in the waters off Townsville, Australia.
But after prosecutors wrapped up their case on Thursday, Judge Tommy Nail ruled there was no evidence to suggest that Gabe Watson intended to kill.
“The only way to convict this man of capital murder is to use speculation and conjecture,” Nail said. “The state has failed to establish an intentional killing.”
Prosecutors claimed Watson stood to gain up to $210,000 in life and travel insurance from his wife’s death. But the defense said far less money was at stake and that Watson was not yet a beneficiary for any of the life insurance funds.
An eye witness testified that he saw Gabe Watson wrap his arms around his wife underwater and figured Watson was trying to save her.
Watson’s mother collapsed in tears outside of the courtroom after hearing the judge had granted the defense’s motion for an acquittal.
“I am thrilled for Gabe. He can finally begin the healing process,” said Watson’s father, David Watson. “Hopefully he can put his life back together.”
Judges rarely grant acquittals in murder cases, said Steve Emens, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. He said Tina Watson’s family could still file a wrongful death claim against Watson if they have not done so already.
Gabe Watson, 34, served 18 months in an Australian jail after pleading guilty to failing to do enough to help his 26-year-old wife during the dive.
He was tried for murder in Birmingham, Alabama, because that was where the couple married and prosecutors say he plotted Tina’s death.
Alabama authorities agreed to waive the death penalty in order to get Australian authorities to release Watson back to the United States, meaning he would have faced a maximum lifetime prison sentence had he been convicted.
The judge’s ruling Thursday abruptly ended the trial, which was in its second week and had been closely watched by the Australian media.
Tina Watson’s father was the state’s final witness. He told jurors that Gabe Watson legally pursued his wife’s family for everything she owned, down to her Gone with the Wind movie memorabilia.
Tommy Thomas said he made several trips to Australia to investigate his daughter’s death himself. During his testimony, he cried and shot angry looks at the man who was his son-in-law for just 11 days.
“It should have gone to a jury to decide,” Thomas told reporters afterward. “We are disappointed. There is a lot more protection for the accused than the victim.”
Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Tim Gaynor