Trial of Alleged 'Honeymoon Killer' Gabe Watson Opens

Death in Australia triggers murder trial in Alabama.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Feb. 13, 2012— -- The trial of Gabe Watson, the so-called "honeymoon killer," began in a Birmingham, Ala., courtroom today eight years after his wife drowned while scuba diving off the coast of Australia.

In October 2003, Watson, then 26, and his bride Tina Watson, also 26, went to Australia on their honeymoon where they planned to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef's historic Yongala dive site.

Eleven days into their honeymoon, Tina Watson drowned while diving with Watson.

What happened during the 15 minutes the newlyweds were under water remains in dispute.

Tough-talking Alabama prosecutor Don Valeska says Watson kidnapped his wife and then murdered her for insurance money.

Valeska is expected to argue that Watson had turned off his wife's air supply and held her until she was unconscious, and then turned the air back on. Watson claims his wife panicked, accidentally knocked his mask, and by the time he recovered she was out of his reach.

The trial opened with motions, including the prosecutor's request that the kidnapping charge be dropped, and the start of jury selection. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

A key element of the case is the motive, that Watson allegedly intended to collect insurance on the death of his new wife.

Instead, it was his wife's father, Tommy Thomas, an insurance agent, who collected her $33,000 life insurance policy.

Thomas claims his daughter came to him right before her marriage for advice. He claims Watson asked Tina to increase her life insurance to the max of $130,000 and make him the beneficiary instead of her father.

Thomas says he told his daughter to "deal with it later" and to tell Watson she had made the changes.

Watson's attorney, Brett Bloomston told ABC News, "There is no evidence that Gabe stood to benefit from his wife's death. In fact, he actually inherited debt."

Watson loves to scuba dive and was excited to share his passion with his new wife. In the summer of 2003, Tina Watson took a several hours long course for her diving certification in Pelham, Ala. The training began at a YMCA and moved to a quarry.

"There is evidence that Tina had a panic episode while getting certified in calm waters," Bloomston said.

Tina Watson's fatal honeymoon dive was her first in open water, and Australian dive experts say the Yongala site is a difficult and often dangerous dive.

But Watson, who was a certified rescue diver at the time, was Tina's "dive buddy," a scuba term meaning you are to look out for your partner's safety.

Watson told Australian police that during their dive Tina signaled to him that she wanted to surface. The current was strong and he believed she may have begun to panic. Watson says he told his wife to inflate her buoyancy vest, but when she hit the button, it did not inflate. His wife, who was wearing weight as divers often do, could not ascend.

Watson says he grabbed her hand to help, but says Tina Watson knocked his regulator out of his mouth as she struggled to swim. Watson says he had to let go of her to replace his regulator, but by the time he had it back on, his wife was sinking rapidly. Because the current was strong, Watson says he did not think he could reach his wife, so he ascended to the surface for help.

The dive group's leader retrieved Tina Watson from the ocean floor, but she was dead.

Another person on the dive told officials that he saw Watson holding his wife in a "bear hug."

Gabe Watson Denies Killing Bride During While Scuba Diving

And a diver photographing her spouse inadvertently captured a photo of Tina Watson lying lifeless on the sea floor.

Nearly five years after the incident, an inquest was launched into her death and Watson was charged with his wife's murder. He returned to Australia and pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter, essentially admitting that he failed to save his wife, but he did not kill her.

He served 18 months in an Australian prison. In November 2010, Australia returned Watson to Alabama after the state agreed to not seek the death penalty. Instead, Watson faces the possibility of life in prison.

When Watson was freed from Australia and returned to Alabama, then-Attorney General Troy King was up for re-election. King staged a national media campaign arguing that Watson is a killer who should pay for the death of his wife. But King lost the election and is no longer in public office.

Now 40 year veteran prosecutor Valeska heads the case. He is a man who has prosecuted 10 men to their execution, more than any serving prosecutor in Alabama.

Watson, who was freed on bond in 2010, lives with his new wife of four years, Kimberly Lewis, and works with his father, David Watson.

During Watson's Alabama trial, over a dozen Australian witnesses are expected to testify.

The defense says one of their witnesses will explain that, based on the data from Tina Watson's air tank, it is impossible that Watson turned off her air.

The dive company that managed the couple's sea excursion, Mike Ball Expeditions, took some blame for her death. They pleaded guilty to contravening their own safety standards and were fined $6,500.

Diving can be a dangerous sport, the defense notes. In 2008, there were 40 deaths in Florida, the most popular diving destination in the United States.

"Gabe's dive expertise has been blown out of proportion. This was Tina's first open water dive, and Mike Ball Expeditions took her on one of the most difficult dives, knowing her lack of experience," Bloomston says.

Bloomston adds that Watson, who has been painted by the prosecution as unemotional, still struggles emotionally today.

"After Tina's death, he attended grief counseling and met with a young widowers group. He could not date or act socially. He was numb."

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