- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. An Alabama judge on Thursday acquitted the man accused of drowning his newlywed wife during a honeymoon diving trip to Australia eight years ago, saying in an unusual ruling that prosecutors did not prove the man intentionally killed his wife to collect on a life insurance policy.

Circuit Judge Tommy Nail issued his ruling before the defense had even presented its case in the two-week-long trial and before jurors were given the case to deliberate.

Prosecutor Don Valeska, head of the violent crimes division for the state attorney general’s office, said he never before had a trial end in a judge’s acquittal in 41 years of trying cases.

Gabe Watson, 34, had faced life in prison without parole if convicted of murdering his wife, Tina Thomas Watson, in 2003. He already served 18 months in an Australian prison after pleading guilty there to a manslaughter charge involving negligence.

Judge Nail agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors failed to show Mr. Watson intentionally killed the woman. Prosecutors claimed he drowned her for insurance money, but the only eyewitness testified he thought Mr. Watson was trying to save the woman.

The state’s evidence was “sorely lacking” and did not prove Mr. Watson had any financial motive.

“I don’t think anyone knows for sure what happened in the water down there,” Judge Nail said. He repeatedly clashed with the prosecutors during both the trial and earlier hearings.

Defense attorneys had argued that Mr. Watson didn’t stand to gain anything monetarily because Tina Watson’s father was the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. They contended her death was an accident.

Gabe Watson’s father, David, hugged his son in the courtroom after the judge made his ruling. He said every court that had looked at the case determined Gabe did not intentionally kill his wife.

“I’m just so relieved. Hopefully he can put his life back together,” the elder Mr. Watson said. “I hope everyone can begin to heal. The rest of his life will determine his legacy. Gabe is a good kid.”

Gabe Watson left the courtroom hand-in-hand with his second wife without commenting to reporters.

Mrs. Watson’s father, Tommy Thomas, had testified earlier in the day. He described how his family’s grief and shock over her death turned to suspicion of her husband.

Mr. Valeska, the prosecutor, walked with his arm around Mr. Thomas, who appeared to be in shock and stunned by the judge’s decision.

“It should have gone to the jury for them to decide,” Mr. Thomas said of the judge’s decision.

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