BIRMINGHAM, Alabama >> A dream honeymoon to scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef turned into a terrible nightmare, and the horror is about to play out years later in a courtroom in Alabama.
An Alabama man who already served prison time in Australia after pleading guilty to a reduced charged in the death of his bride goes to trial Monday, accused of murdering her for insurance money. Tina Thomas Watson drowned during a scuba dive on the reef just days after her wedding in October 2003.
Gabe Watson is charged with capital murder — which normally is a death-penalty offense in Alabama — but faces life in prison without parole if convicted because of a deal the state made years ago with Australian officials to guarantee his return to the U.S.
Jury selection and legal wrangling could take several days; officials said the trial could last a month.
Tina Watson’s father said the family has endured eight years of delays and disappointments getting to the trial date.
"It’s been a traumatic, excruciating ordeal," said Tommy Thomas, of suburban Helena.
Watson, 34, and Tina met in college. They wed and went to Australia to dive — a trip prosecutors claim Watson meticulously planned so he could kill the 26-year-old woman and make it appear like an accident.
Watson is accused of killing Tina Watson by turning off her air supply and bear-hugging her as she drowned while diving on a shipwreck in 2003. Don Valeska, an assistant state attorney general handling the case, argues Watson killed the woman believing he could collect on a modest life insurance policy.
Originally charged with murder in Australia, Watson avoided a jury trial there by pleading to a charge of manslaughter and serving 18 months for not doing enough to save his wife. He was an experienced diver; she was a novice.
The defense will argue during the trial that Tina Watson’s death was an unintended, horrible mishap. One of Watson’s lawyers said the man — who is free on bond and has remarried — was anxious to get the trial started.
"He’s nervous. He’s ready to get this trial behind him so he can be a free person," defense lawyer Joseph Basgier said after a hearing last month.
The state has subpoenaed people from as far away as Australia and California to testify about what happened that day on a dive boat called the Spoilsport, but it’s unclear how many will take the stand. The defense has subpoenaed potential witnesses including former Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who pushed for state charges against Watson.
The case has aroused deep passions both in Australia and the United States, with hundreds of people joining sites on Facebook to show support either for Watson or the Thomas family.
Tina Watson’s sister, Alanda Thomas, counted down to the start of the trial by posting messages to a group called "Call for Gabe Watson to do what is right!"
"Please everyone continue to pray for (j)ustice for Tina," she wrote.
Tommy Thomas said he is glad his former son-in-law will finally face a jury.
"This is our last chance to get justice, and we know it," Thomas said in an interview. "But we’re confident, and if the bulk of the evidence is presented it doesn’t matter whether it’s a jury in Alabama or a jury in Australia, we’re going to get a just outcome."
Once Watson finished his sentence in Australia in November 2010, the country deported him to the United States with an agreement from Alabama and federal prosecutors that he wouldn’t face the death penalty. Such a deal is required under Australian extradition law.
Watson’s attorneys asked an Alabama judge to throw out the state charge, arguing he was being tried twice for the same offense, but the judge refused. The state argued successfully that Watson could be tried in Alabama for something that happened in Australia by claiming he plotted the killing in the state.
The trial was delayed for 10 months because of concerns that layoffs linked to budget shortages would prevent court officials from providing adequate security.