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July 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Did Gabe Watson Get Away With Murder?

from the July, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In a surprise move, Gabe Watson, 32, the American charged with killing his first wife on a honeymoon dive trip on the Great Barrier Reef in October 2003, returned to Australia on May 13 and pleaded guilty, after years of denying he was a murderer.

Tina Watson was a novice diver and drowned at age 26 while exploring the Yongala wreck near Townsville from the Mike Ball liveaboard Spoilsport. An inquest was held in Australia last year, and the coroner found it likely that Watson, an experienced diver, killed his wife by turning off her air, holding her underwater and then letting her sink to the bottom. Watson says Tina got into trouble a few minutes into the dive so he surfaced to summon help. (See our coverage of the investigation in the August 2007 and July 2008 issues of Undercurrent.) Australia faced an uphill battle to get him extradited from Alabama but Watson, who has since remarried, decided to come back voluntarily to clear his name. Or so it seemed…

During the court hearing on June 5, there was no reference to Tina’s air being switched off. Prosecutor Brendan Campbell told the court Tina “became distressed” while diving, and Watson’s wrongdoing was that he did not help her as a dive buddy should have by giving her air from his octopus. Watson’s lawyer, Steve Zillman, said his client panicked when he saw his wife was in trouble and though Watson had a search-and -rescue dive certification, it was “just a piece of paper” and he had no confidence to rescue a person in a real emergency situation in open water.

Watson was given a four-and-a-half-year sentence, suspended after he has served 12 months. The suspended sentence is not unusual. The Queensland prosecutor’s office is underfunded, its attorneys having to do three times the work of those in other Australian states, so it faces pressure to cut deals to avoid long trials and the possibility of adverse rulings.

But outrage from Tina’s family, not to mention the media attention on the ruling, has persuaded Queensland’s Attorney General to consider an appeal of the sentence. Alabama’s Attorney General Troy King has asked the Queensland court if it can re-sentence Watson to the maximum punishment under Australian laws, which is 10 to 20 years. If that fails, King’s office plans to come up with murder charges against Watson if it can find evidence he plotted to kill his wife while they were both in the U.S., and before that fateful dive trip.

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