BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A judge on Thursday acquitted a man accused of drowning his newlywed wife during a honeymoon diving trip to Australia.
Judge Tommy Nail ruled that prosecutors failed to present enough evidence of a crime to send the case to jurors. He ended the two-week-long trial by acquitting 34-year-old Gabe Watson on his own.
Watson had faced a sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of murdering his wife, Tina Thomas Watson, in 2003. He already served 18 months in an Australian prison after pleading guilty there to a manslaughter charge involving negligence.
Nail agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors failed to show Watson intentionally killed the woman. Prosecutors claimed he drowned her for insurance money, but the only eyewitness testified he thought Watson was trying to save the woman.
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."
Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, had testified earlier in the day. He described how his family's grief and shock over Tina Watson's death turned to suspicion of Gabe Watson.
Shortly after the death, Thomas said, his wife, Cindy, was worried about Watson's condition.
However, evidence showed relations between Watson, 34, and his wife's family frayed quickly as the Thomases began having doubts about what happened and Gabe Watson began asking for Tina Watson's belongings.
Gabe Watson's father called to tell them about the woman's death more than 15 hours after she drowned, Thomas said, and Tina Watson's family never heard from Gabe Watson until they attempted to contact him through the U.S. consulate in Australia.
Thomas said that in a phone call from Australia, Watson claimed his wife gave him a thumbs up underwater, indicating she wanted to go back to the surface. Watson said he was leading her back to a rope when she panicked, knocked off his mask and air hose, and began sinking, according to Thomas.
But during a later talk at a lawyer's office, Thomas said, Watson changed his story and said the woman indicated she wanted to go back to the rope leading to the top rather than go directly to the surface. Staring directly at Watson from the witness stand, Thomas said he asked his former son-in-law at that time: "When Tina gave him the thumbs up sign to go to the surface, why didn't he just take her to the surface?"