LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — A Louisiana jury Friday found a man guilty of murder in the 1962 death of his first wife, who he had claimed accidentally drowned.
KPLC-TV (http://bit.ly/2aNSy4Y ) reports jurors deliberated less than an hour before returning their verdict in the case against Felix Vail, 76. Conviction carries a mandatory life sentence.
Vail had pleaded not guilty in the death of Mary Horton Vail. Defense lawyers said the then-22-year-old woman fell from Vail's boat and Vail tried unsuccessfully to save her from drowning.
Calcasieu Parish coroner Dr. Terry Welke reopened the investigation after The Clarion-Ledger newspaper published a five-part series in 2012 about Felix Vail, his first wife's death and the disappearances in 1973 of the man's girlfriend, Sharon Hensley, and of his second wife, Annette Craver Vail, in 1984.
Welke was the first witness at the trial. He said drowning victims normally are found face-down, arms down. But he said Mary Vail's body was stiff, arms crossed and found face-up in the Calcasieu River.
Dr. Avery Cook, the coroner in 1962, noted that 4 inches of Mary Vail's scarf were stuffed into her mouth, according to Welke. Welke had reviewed Cook's report, along with witness statements and photographs of the body's recovery.
Unlike Cook, Welke is a forensic pathologist.
On Tuesday, Welke testified that he examines about 10 drowning victims a year, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, reported (http://on.thec-l.com/2aLylQ6). "I'm familiar with what happens when people drown, and I'm familiar with what happens when people die," he said.
Renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden testified that Mary Vail's death was a homicide — and that she was knocked unconscious, a scarf tied around her neck and put in her mouth before she entered the Calcasieu River.
After evaluating the autopsy and photos of Mary's body, Baden found she died of traumatic asphyxiation.
Baden, who is known for his work in connection with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., was the state's last witness.
Felix Vail chose not to testify in his own defense. Defense attorneys have also suggested that the other women linked to Vail could be alive and well somewhere else.
Vail's sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 26.
Information from: KPLC-TV, http://kplctv.com