Sunday, June 7, 2009

Alabama Officials Will Examine Australia Diving Death

Is it possible that Australia's justice system actually could be worse than the one we have in Alabama?

It is starting to look that way after Gabe Watson was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter last week in Brisbane, Australia. Watson had been charged with murder in the drowning death of his wife, Tina Thomas Watson. After the plea, Watson received a 4 1/2-year sentence, suspended to 12 months.

The sentence drew cries of outrage, both in Australia and the United States. Law-enforcement officials in the Watsons' native Alabama say they might pursue murder charges here if they can find evidence that Gabe Watson plotted to kill his wife while at home and carried out the plan on their honeymoon in Australia.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Alabama Attorney General Troy King plans to lead a delegation to Australia to lobby for an appeal of the sentence.

The Sydney newspaper quoted Don Valeska, an assistant attorney general in King's office:

"I don't wish to throw stones at the Australian prosecutors but they spent hundreds of hours on this and told me personally they had a very strong case. It now seems Tina's parents made a huge mistake letting them handle this. What were (the prosecutors) thinking? Had we known Watson was only going to get a year, we would have begged the prosecutors to drop all charges and send him back to America.

"It is a fact that he would have received at least 20 years here, probably life without parole, because we can demonstrate he killed for the money."

Valeska was referring to a $160,000 life-insurance policy that prosecutors believe was the motive behind Tina Watson's death.

Gabe Watson and Tina Thomas grew up in the suburbs south of Birmingham. They married in October 2003, with a honeymoon set for Australia, and Tina Watson drowned 11 days later while diving off the Great Barrier Reef.

Here is how the Sydney Morning Herald described the case against Gabe Watson:

Underwater footage taken during Mrs. Watson's fatal dive showed her husband swimming away while she sank to the ocean floor.

Watson, a rescue diver, told authorities his wife panicked underwater. He said she was too heavy to drag to the surface so he raced off for help. He later changed details of his account when quizzed by police.

An autopsy failed to find any pre-existing medical condition to explain her death, and tests proved there was nothing wrong with her diving gear.

The coroner found it likely Watson killed his wife by holding her underwater and turning off her air supply. The motive was believed to be her life insurance policy, which Watson tried to collect after her death.

Valeska said the case could present complications for Alabama officials hoping to intervene:

"As far as this department is concerned, the crime started in America and was then committed in Australia.

"We can demonstrate Watson started plotting here because he went to her job and tried to up the insurance, without her, right before they got married.

"We would definitely arrest him when he gets back but whether two countries can charge someone over the same murder remains to be seen. A judge here may turn around and say that he can't be put in jeopardy for the same crime twice."

Our blog is largely about the dismal state of the justice system in Alabama. But is it possible that Tina Thomas Watson could receive some measure of justice in her home state? It certainly appears that Australian authorities have failed her.


Unknown said...

Not to throw cold water on this story but when I hear Don Valeska boasting about what he will do in a case lime this...well...lights flash and bells ring. This guy has a lot of history he would like everyone to forget about.

legalschnauzer said...

You raise an interesting point. I suspect the post at the line below addresses some of what you are referring to:

Interestingly, Mr. Valeska also was involved in the perjury prosecution of Pelham attorney Bill Swatek back in the early 1980s. Mr. Swatek miraculously got off on that charge and went on to cheat me and numerous other individuals in court. I don't know that Mr. Valeska should shoulder any of the blame for the Swatek fiasco. But it's interesting that he was involved.

Anonymous said...

In the absence of direct evidence about what happened, it was always going to be hard to prove to a jury - beyond reasonable doubt - that it was murder. Even the coroner acknowledged that only two people knew what really happened, and one of them was dead.