BIRMINGHAM, Ala. >> Prosecutors encountered legal hurdles just getting Gabe Watson into an Alabama courtroom to face a murder charge in the death of his wife, who drowned during a honeymoon dive off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef eight years ago. In the end, a judge decided they didn’t have enough evidence for jurors to even bother deliberating.
A state judge on Thursday agreed with a defense motion and acquitted the 34-year-old Watson in the death of his wife of 11 days, Tina Thomas Watson.
The defense — which contended that 26-year-old Tina Watson’s death was an unintended, horrible mishap — never even got started after prosecutors finished. Jurors filed out of the basement courtroom without having a chance to weigh in on the case.
Watson buried his face in his hands at the decision; he had faced a sentence of life without parole if convicted. He hugged his mother and father, who blamed the prosecution on Alabama politics, and his second wife, who accompanied him throughout the trial.
Watson’s former father-in-law, Tommy Thomas, appeared shell-shocked.
"It should have gone to the jury for them to decide," Thomas said.
The case was ended by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tommy Nail, who clashed with prosecutors throughout the trial and earlier hearings.
Prosecutor Don Valeska told The Associated Press that four key decisions by the judge during trial crippled the state’s case.
That included his refusal to let Thomas and Tina Watson’s sister Alanda testify in depth about conversations they had with Watson after the death. Those could have helped show that Watson wanted insurance money, he said.
Nail also refused to let prosecutors show jurors videotape of a police re-enactment of the dive and barred them from seeing a surveillance video of Watson removing flowers from his wife’s grave, Valeska told the AP.
"With four rulings like that it’s hard to win any case," Valeska said.
During pretrial maneuvering, prosecutors had successfully persuaded the judge to let the case move forward by arguing they had evidence that Watson plotted his wife’s death in Alabama in hopes of profiting from modest insurance policies. They also overcame defense arguments that Watson shouldn’t stand trial at all because he already had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 18 months in prison in Australia.
When 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.
Once Valeska finished presenting his case, Nail agreed with defense claims that prosecutors failed to show Watson intentionally killed the woman. He said there was no evidence Watson stood to profit from her death, and he sided with defense lawyers who said the only eyewitness testified he thought Watson was trying to save the woman. Defense attorneys had argued that Watson didn’t stand to gain anything monetarily because Tina Watson’s father was the beneficiary of her life insurance policy.
The state’s evidence was "sorely lacking."
"I don’t think anyone knows for sure what happened in the water down there," Nail said.
Gabe Watson’s father, David, said every court that had looked at the case through years of litigation 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."
Robert Jarvis, law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., said Nail’s decision was "very unusual," but not unprecedented.
"Most judges think that if it is an extremely weak case, the jury will see that. Most judges prefer to let even the weakest of cases go to the jury and let them decide if there was sufficient evidence," he said. "The more serious the offense, the more reluctant a judge is to take the case away from a jury."
He added: "You can actually make the case that this is a courageous judge."
Valeska, head of the violent crimes division in the Alabama attorney general’s office, said he’d never before had a case like this one.
"And I’ve been doing this 41 years," he said.
While outside court Watson’s father blamed the failed prosecution on former Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who lost a bid for re-election after pushing the case publicly, Valeska denied that politics played any role in the case.
"There’s evidence," said Valeska. "I cannot just take a case to a grand jury because some elected official says to."
Speaking Friday on NBC’s "Today" show, King said politics did not play a role in the case, noting that a grand jury agreed on the charges.
"There’s no politics involved in a grand jury," King told NBC. "They don’t run for election."
King also said he was proud of his efforts in pursuing the case.
"I’m very sad this morning that Judge Nail decided that his opinion mattered more than those jurors’ opinions," King said.
AP writers Curt Anderson in Miami and Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.