Christina Mae "Tina" Watson (née Thomas; 13 February 1977 – 22 October 2003), a 26-year-old American woman from Helena, Alabama, passed away while scuba diving on her honeymoon in Queensland, Australia, on 22 October 2003. She was a newlywed, having married a fellow American, David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson, 11 days earlier. He was initially charged by Queensland authorities with his wife's murder. This was changed to manslaughter with a guilty plea. He was subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment for her manslaughter.
At trial, evidence presented included Gabe Watson's differing accounts of what had happened on that day, of the couple's diving experience (or lack thereof), and of Tina Watson's life insurance. While he was serving his term, authorities in Alabama flagged an intention to charge him with murder at a later date. After his release, he was deported from Australia to Alabama. Australian authorities would only return him to the United States once an assurance was in place that Watson wouldn't be sentenced to the death penalty if found guilty of murder. He was then charged by Alabama authorities with Tina Watson's murder and was put on trial. On 23 February 2012, Alabama judge Tommy Nail dismissed the murder case due to lack of evidence.
Gabe Watson met Tina Thomas while they were students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Tina took beginning diving lessons and earned her certification just before the two were married in October 2003. Watson, a purportedly qualified certified rescue diver, had planned a scuba trip in the Great Barrier Reef for their honeymoon.
During an excursion on the dive boat Spoilsport to the site of the SS Yongala, a passenger ship that sank in 1911, Tina lost consciousness and sank to the bottom, 100 feet (30 m) below the water's surface within two minutes of beginning the dive. Watson claimed the currents were stronger than they expected and that he responded to a signal from her to return to the dive rope where he noted a look of worry on her face before she accidentally knocked his mask loose. When he recovered his sight, she was sinking too for him to retrieve her and he surfaced to get help. He additionally stated that an ear problem prevented him from diving deeper to help her and that there was nothing in his training as a rescue diver "about how to get somebody" in trouble to the surface.
Other divers were nearby at the time, including Dr. Stanley Stutz, who saw Watson engaged in an underwater "bear hug" with his "flailing" wife, after which he headed for the surface while his wife fell to the ocean floor. A fellow diver, Gary Stempler, photographed Watson by chance while taking a picture of his own wife that showed Tina in the background. The photo revealed Tina lying on the ocean floor, something that didn't come to light until a couple of weeks later when the pictures were developed. Watson climbed aboard the Spoilsport and alerted dive instructor Wade Singleton, who brought Tina to the surface. She was taken aboard the adjacent dive boat Jazz II, where a doctor tried to resuscitate her while Watson remained on the Spoilsport.
The day following Tina's death, an autopsy was performed by Professor David Williams, consultant forensic pathologist to the Queensland Coroner. Williams found florid evidence of air embolism, but no degenerative disease. He gave the cause of death as drowning.
Due to the unexpected nature of Tina Watson's death and the implausible and conflicting statements given by Watson, the death was investigated by the State Coroner's office. A coronial inquiry was held, as is the usual practise in Australia. Gabe Watson declined to return to Australia, so didn't testify throughout the inquest but gave evidence through his lawyers to the inquest and to the Queensland police. Throughout the inquest, prosecutors submitted evidence that Watson's storey contradicted the record of his actions stored by his dive computer. They suggested the possibility that he turned off Tina's air regulator and held her until she was unconscious, then turned the air back on and let her sink before surfacing himself. As evidence, they described the a large number of painstaking re-enactments of various scenarios conducted by police divers. Tina's father claimed that Gabe Watson had asked Tina, shortly before their wedding, to increase her life insurance and make him the sole beneficiary.
Civil action commenced in Alabama
In March 2005, Watson launched legal action in Alabama's Jefferson County Circuit Court to recoup the cost of their trip after the travel insurance company refused a payout. He was seeking $45,000 for the accidental death plus compensation for trip interruption, medical expenses, phone calls, taxi fares, fees for additional credit card statements and unspecified punitive damages for mental and emotional anguish. The action was dismissed in May 2008 at Watson's request on the grounds the Australian investigation into his wife's death caused him "to reasonably apprehend that he risks self-incrimination in this case". His Australian legal team believed "it wasn't in his best interest" to pursue the damages claim and Watson's U.S.-based lawyer, Bob Austin, added that his client wouldn't be voluntarily "going back to Australia".
On 19 June 2008, the Coroner laid the following charge:
That on the twenty-second day of October 2003 at the site of the historical shipwreck Yongala 48 nautical miles south east from the port of Townsville in the state of Queensland David Gabriel Watson murdered Christina Mae Watson.
It was reported that the Coroner found "that Watson likely killed his 26-year-old wife by turning off her air supply and holding her in an "underwater bear hug" until she was dead"; however, the coroner had made no such finding.
Trial and sentence in Australia
The Queensland state coroner found in 2008 evidence regarded as enough to try Watson for murder. He travelled voluntarily from the United States to Australia in May 2009 to face trial. At the trial on 5 June 2009, Watson pleaded not guilty to murder and guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of manslaughter. Crown prosecutor Brendan Campbell pointed out that over time Watson had given police 16 different versions of what had happened to Tina and that none of those versions matched what the only eyewitness had seen. When Tina was brought to the surface her regulator was still in her mouth, her tank still had air, and tests indicated no faults with her equipment. The prosecutor described Watson as an experienced diver trained in rescuing panicked divers, who had allowed his wife to sink to the ocean floor without making any serious attempt to retrieve her. He didn't inflate her buoyancy control device (BCD) or remove her weight belt, and he failed in his duty as her dive buddy by not sharing his (alternate) air source with her.
The prosecutor claimed Watson unlawfully killed Tina by failing in duty of care to fulfil his obligations as her "dive buddy" throughout the scuba dive. He said that when Tina grabbed for his alternate air source, he didn't give it to her and then swam away from her as she sank to the bottom of the sea bed. Gabe was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, to be suspended after serving only twelve months.
Reaction to the sentence
Tina's family said that Gabe Watson's twelve-month term was an embarrassment to Australia. The day following the trial, Alabama Attorney-General Troy King vowed to lodge an appeal with the Queensland Supreme Court. King additionally wrote to Queensland Attorney-General Cameron Dick. Fairfax Newspapers reported the letter was leaked to them and published part of it.
The Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions, Tony Moynihan SC, issued a statement the next business day, which said: "The decision to accept Mr Watson's plea of guilty to manslaughter was made after a careful and thorough examination of the admissible evidence, and wasn't taken lightly. Given the complex circumstantial nature of the case, Mr Watson's admission that he breached his duty to render assistance to his wife ultimately meant there was no reasonable prospect of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was guilty of murder." On 18 June 2009, Dick announced the state would appeal against the inadequacy of Watson's sentence.
The appeal was heard by the Queensland Court of Appeals on 17 July 2009. The Crown asked the court to increase the prison time Watson would have to serve to two and a half years. The defence argued that Watson had had a momentary lapse in judgment, had been accused of a crime he didn't commit, and had voluntarily returned to Australia to co-operate with the court, and that the penalty imposed by the trial judge was fair and just. The findings on appeal were handed down on 18 September 2009. Two members allowed the prosecution's appeal, increasing Watson's period of incarceration by six months to a total of 18 months. One justice by minority opinion was in favour of dismissing the appeal.
Tina Watson is buried in her native Pelham, Alabama. Her remains were exhumed and moved in 2007 to a different lot bought by her widower. After being informed by her family that flowers and gifts were repeatedly being vandalised or disappearing from the grave site, even when chained down, a police officer investigated. On hidden surveillance videos, he witnessed Watson removing them with bolt cutters and throwing them in trash cans. Watson later said he removed them because they were "big, gaudy, plastic arrangements". Her grave was unmarked until 2009 when Watson provided a foot marker, prompting her father to request her body be returned for reburial. In 2011, the Probate Court removed Watson as administrator of Tina's estate, appointing her father who additionally wants her school and college pictures and yearbooks returned. Watson has appealed against the ruling and refused to provide the court with an inventory of Tina's possessions. Pending Watson's trial, the Circuit Court ordered him to stay away from the grave.
Trial in United States
In May 2010, Alabama Attorney-General Troy King announced he had information not yet made public and wanted to try Watson for capital murder, asserting jurisdiction based on the theory that the alleged crime was planned in Alabama. King petitioned Australia for the evidence held by police but was refused access until he gave an undertaking that the death penalty wouldn't be imposed, as required under Australian law. This condition has been strongly criticised by King and Don Valeska, chief of the attorney-general's violent crime division, who stated: "If an Australian woman was killed here, we would immediately send the evidence there. We wouldn't presume to tell the Australian authorities how to run their criminal justice system". In response to the announcement, Watson's parents came to the defence of their son, breaking their public silence on the case. Friends and family of Watson questioned whether he had any motive for the murder, noting that his affection for Tina had seemed genuine, there was no life insurance policy naming him as beneficiary, and he appeared to be emotionally devastated for an extended time following Tina's death.
In June 2010 King assured the Queensland Attorney-General he wouldn't seek the death penalty if Watson was tried in the United States for his wife's death. In August 2010 it was announced Watson would be released in November and was likely to be deported to the US, where he faced being charged with murder. Valeska stated he would pursue an additional charge of kidnapping by deception. The case was placed before a grand jury in Birmingham, Alabama, in October 2010.
Watson was released from prison on 10 November 2010. He was transferred to an immigration detention centre while his deportation was delayed. Throughout this time, Australian authorities sought further written assurances from the US Attorney General that he wouldn't face the death penalty in Alabama if convicted of murder. Under international human rights law, Australia couldn't deport Watson if he faced execution in his home country. On 25 November 2010 he was deported to the United States and immediately arrested.
Alabama prosecutors charged Gabe Watson with murder at the conclusion of his prison sentence in Australia after finding what they claimed was evidence he had plotted to kill his wife while still in the United States. A Birmingham grand jury indicted Watson on murder charges in October 2010. In July 2011, the Circuit Court set the trial date for 13 February 2012; Watson was released on bond.
Colin McKenzie, a key diving expert in the original investigation who had maintained that "a diver with Watson's training should have been able to bring Tina up", subsequently retracted much of his testimony after being provided with Tina and Gabe's diver logs, certificates and medical histories, to which he hadn't previously had access. McKenzie claimed Gabe Watson shouldn't have been allowed in the water and never as a dive buddy for his wife, who had no open water scuba experience. Tina Watson had had heart surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat two years earlier but on her dive application had stated that she had never had heart problems or surgery. Professor Michael "Mike" Bennett, a leading expert in dive medicine, stated that Tina was unfit to dive without clearance from a cardiologist. Gabe Watson had received his rescue certification, normally a four-day course, after completing a two-day course in an Alabama quarry. He had no rescue experience and little open water experience.
According to McKenzie, "He had no hope of being competent, he could barely save himself [that day] let alone his wife; I don't believe he intended to kill her." Revelations that Watson needed help to don his diving equipment that day underscored that he was a "dangerous amateur" who showed "a complete lack of courage" when he abandoned his wife. The dive company had offered an orientation and guided dive with a dive master, which both Tina and Gabe Watson had refused. Company head Mike Ball said his people took Watson at his word, believing he was an experienced and certified rescue diver. The company later pleaded guilty to contravening safety standards (their code of conduct said both Gabe and Tina MUST be supervised by at least a dive master on the dive in question) and was fined $6500, plus costs of $1500.
Dismissal of the case
Alabama judge Tommy Nail ruled that evidence of Watson's behaviour following Tina's death was inadmissible. Nail additionally blocked Tina's father Tommy Thomas from giving evidence regarding Watson's alleged attempts to increase Tina's life insurance. On 23 February 2012, Nail acquitted Gabe Watson for lack of evidence without the defence needing to present its case. Nail said that the state's evidence was "sorely lacking" and that the prosecution couldn't prove that Watson had any financial motive. Prosecutor Don Valeska said that this was the first time he had had a trial end in a judge's acquittal in the 41 years he had been trying cases. Regarding the judge's decision, Thomas said, "It should have gone to the jury for them to decide."
A feature on the death of Tina Watson was broadcast in a 90-minute account that aired on Dateline NBC on 19 May 2008. An examination of Tina Watson's death and Gabe Watson's subsequent trial and appeal was published by The Age on 17 July 2010. The author was Walkley Award winning investigative journalist, Peter Patrick. A feature on the death of Watson and her husband's Alabama acquittal was broadcast on an episode of the Australian 60 Minutes on 25 March 2012.