By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - A fellow diver testified on Thursday that Alabama resident Gabe Watson, who is on trial for murder, was close enough to reach the oxygen valve on his new wife's scuba gear during a honeymoon dive that left her dead off the coast of Australia.
But Stanley Stutz said he could not see whether Watson actually tampered with Tina Watson's equipment before the newlywed drowned in October 2003, just 11 days after the couple's wedding.
Gabe Watson, 34, is standing trial on a first-degree murder charge in Alabama, where prosecutors accuse him of planning his 26-year-old wife's death in order to cash in on more than $200,000 in insurance money.
Authorities accuse him of turning off her air supply while the couple was under water, then turning it back on during the encounter that Stutz witnessed.
Stutz said he was making his way to a shipwreck site on the Great Barrier Reef during an underwater dive when he noticed Tina Watson floating face up and in distress about 20 feet away.
"She looked scared," Stutz testified.
He said he saw Gabe Watson swim toward his wife, hover over her face-to-face and wrap his arms under her armpits.
"The only thing that came to mind is Gabe was trying to save her," Stutz told jurors.
Stutz said he watched as Gabe Watson then released his wife and ascended to the surface. Tina sank, barely moving, to the sea floor near the wreck.
Another diver swam to Tina and pulled her to the surface. Stutz, an emergency room physician, also later surfaced and tried to help resuscitate the young woman.
Witnesses said Thursday that Gabe Watson waited on a separate boat as rescuers worked on his wife for more than 40 minutes without success.
In a police interview played for jurors on Wednesday, Watson told investigators that he had pulled Tina toward him as she began to sink and yelled through his breathing device, "Swim, Tina, swim!"
He said he then headed toward the surface, figuring that was the fastest way to get her help. Strong currents had exhausted them both, he said.
"She just wore herself out," Watson said on the tape.
Watson, who has remarried, served 18 months in an Australian jail after pleading guilty to failing to do enough to help Tina Watson.
He faces life in prison without parole if convicted of murder in Alabama. Officials agreed to waive the death penalty in order to get Australian authorities to send Watson back to the United States.
Gabe Watson's explanation did not sound plausible to Kenneth Snyder, a veteran diver on the Watsons' fateful trip who spoke to the young husband minutes after Tina's body was brought up.
"Gabe showed no distress," Snyder told Reuters after testifying on Thursday. "He was cold. There was nothing there, lifeless eyes. He did not behave normal."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)