By JAY REEVES, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama man went on trial Monday on a capital murder charge in the death of his newlywed bride more than eight years after she drowned during a honeymoon diving trip in Australia.
Prosecutors contend Gabe Watson killed 26-year-old Tina Thomas Watson during a dive by turning off her air supply and restraining her until she lost consciousness. Watson, 34, hoped to collect on a modest life insurance policy, prosecutors said.
The defense argues the woman's death was an accident.
The trial has been a long time coming for relatives of Tina Watson, who died just 11 days after her wedding in October 2003. Watson pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 18 months in prison in Australia, but he hasn't yet faced a jury.
"What's really important to us is that this go through the process that should have happened in Australia, that he has to stand before the evidence and answer to it," said Tommy Thomas, Tina's father, in an interview last week.
Meeting with attorneys before beginning jury selection, Circuit Judge Tommy Nail said Watson's trial would last at least two weeks. Potential witnesses have been subpoenaed from Australia, but it's unclear exactly who will testify.
Answering questions from the judge and lawyers, a handful of potential jurors said they either dive or have relatives with scuba experience. While dozens indicated they'd heard about the case in news reports, only three said they'd made up their minds on guilt or innocence.
"With everything I've seen on TV and read in the paper I think he's guilty," one woman said before the judge cut her off. A man indicated he believed it was wrong to try Watson because he already has been through the Australian justice system.
Attorneys could select a jury on Tuesday.
While capital murder normally carries a possible death sentence upon conviction, former Attorney General Troy King agreed to waive the death penalty in return for Australia agreeing to deport Watson after he finished his prison term there.
The judge dealt the defense a setback before jury selection began when he threw out an attempt by Watson's lawyers to have King testify. Defense attorney Brett Bloomston argued that King put up signs and used social media to "promote" the Watson case during his re-election bid, which failed.
"He used this case as a political platform," Bloomston said.
Nail said such evidence had no place in the trial.
"I just don't see how he could offer any relevant testimony," Nail said.
Nail also rejected a defense request for additional evidence from prosecutors. "You've got 12,000 pages of documents. If you can't get ready for trial with that I don't know what else I can do," the judge told the defense.
Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska told the judge prosecutors would drop a charge of murder during an abduction.
The decision means prosecutors no longer must prove claims that Watson schemed to get his bride to go on their honeymoon trip, in effect kidnapping her. The state still must convince jurors that Watson planned the killing in Alabama with the idea of collecting insurance money.
Watson, who has remarried and was accompanied by his second wife in court, faces a sentence of life without parole if convicted.
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