Victim's sister testifies in Ala diving death case

AP News
Posted: Feb 21, 2012 7:32 PM
Victim's sister testifies in Ala diving death case

A man charged with murdering his wife by drowning her during a 2003 honeymoon diving trip in Australia said he was done grieving her death by the time her funeral was being planned back home in Alabama, the woman's sister testified Tuesday.

The testimony by Alanda Thomas came during an afternoon of heated exchanges between the judge and prosecutors, who were mostly blocked from using the sister's testimony to describe for jurors the relationship between the couple.

Testifying for prosecutors against former brother-in-law Gabe Watson, Thomas said Watson told her following her sister's death that he wanted to claim the personal belongings of Tina Thomas Watson before the viewing of her body at a funeral home.

"He told me that I needed to realize that he had his time in Australia to grieve and he was over the grieving process," Thomas testified. Watson said he knew the Thomas family needed more time to grieve, she testified.

The funeral was two weeks after Tina Watson's death.

Thomas, who glanced several times at her former brother-in-law from the stand, said she never again talked to Watson after the exchange. He has since remarried, and his second wife is accompanying him to court during the trial.

Prosecutors had tried to draw out more testimony from Thomas about conversations she had with Watson and some of his actions after the death, but Circuit Judge Tommy Nail blocked most of the questions as improper.

After a prosecutors' question about funeral plans drew defense objections, Nail pounded his desk and pointed at Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska. "You need to move on!" the judge said loudly before sending jurors out of court.

"If y'all don't like my ruling, you know where Montgomery is," said the judge, referring to the state's appeal courts.

"Judge, I'm an advocate ...." Valeska said.

"And I'm the referee," Nail said pointedly.

Defense attorneys for the 34-year-old Watson contend that Tina Watson's death was an accident.

Watson served 18 months in prison in Australia after pleading guilty to a manslaughter charge in his wife's death but that charge involved negligence, not an intentional killing, as Alabama authorities allege.

The man who was the dive master on the 2003 diving trip testified that the tour operator, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, violated its own rules in preparing the woman for the fatal trip. Wade Singleton said the 26-year-old Watson didn't get a private briefing or an orientation dive before going into the water with her husband despite policies that require both. The company was later fined for violating workplace safety rules, testimony showed.

Trying to bolster suggestions that the company that operated the diving boat was at least partly to blame, defense lawyer Brett Bloomston got Singleton to acknowledge that he and other crew members didn't ask a number of questions of the woman, a novice with only 11 previous dives.

While company rules based on government regulations required workers to make in-depth, individual assessments of divers' skills, employees on the Spoilsport didn't perform all the checks on Tina Watson or other divers, Singleton said.

"Were you not aware that she had never been in the ocean in an open water dive?" Bloomston asked.

"No, I was not," replied Singleton, who has since left the diving business and now works as a paramedic.

Singleton said Gabe Watson was considered an experienced diver because he had 55 previous dives, including more than a dozen in the ocean, and both he and his wife declined an orientation dive on the Great Barrier Reef site with an expert.

"You can't make them take the dive if they don't want to take the dive?" prosecutor Tina Hammonds asked.

"No, I can't," he said.

The woman drowned while diving on a shipwreck off the coast. Prosecutors argue her husband turned off her air intentionally. The defense claims her death was an accident.

Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, left the courtroom in tears as an Australian medical examiner showed jurors autopsy photos. The doctor, David John Williams, said an examination determined the woman drowned, and he ruled out other factors including a heart problem that she'd had several years earlier.

Prosecutors contend Watson killed his wife of 11 days in hopes of collecting some $210,000 in insurance benefits, A manager at a store where Tina Watson worked, Caesar Lamonica, testified that Watson came in within a month of her death asking about a life insurance policy.

The defense argues Watson didn't have anything to gain monetarily because Tina Watson's father was the beneficiary of her life insurance policy and a travel insurance policy only covered expenses. Earlier testimony showed that Tina Watson's father was the beneficiary under her life insurance policy.