BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Relatives of an Alabama woman who died during a 2003 honeymoon scuba diving trip in Australia were pleased Monday when a Jefferson County judge set an early trial date for the capital murder charge against her husband, Gabe Watson.
"That's what we wanted all along is to get the case against him before a jury," said Tommy Thomas, father of Tina Watson, who died during her dream honeymoon to Australia less than two weeks after her wedding. She was 26.
Watson, 33, pleaded not guilty during a brief hearing in Birmingham, and Circuit Judge Tommy Nail set his trial for May 23.
After a hearing that lasted less than 10 minutes, Watson calmly walked past a throng of reporters and photographers outside the courtroom, shaking his head when asked if he had anything to say. He will remain free on bond.
Supporters of Watson and friends and family members of his late wife were in the courtroom. Some friends of Tina Watson wore a purple ribbon with a photograph of her wearing her wedding dress.
Thomas has been pushing for Watson to be prosecuted, and had expressed concern that the case would face long delays.
"My No. 1 objective is to get justice for my daughter," Thomas said.
Deputy District Attorney Don Valeska said he would be ready to try the complicated case on May 23 and expects to bring as many as 10 witnesses from Australia to testify.
"I've been ready from the start," Valeska said.
Gabe Watson's attorney, Brett Bloomston, asked Nail to issue an order prohibiting attorneys and others involved with the case from talking about it. The judge did not immediately rule on the request. Bloomston declined comment following the hearing.
Watson served 18 months in an Australian jail after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of his wife of 11 days. Alabama authorities charged Watson with capital murder, arguing he planned her death and sought insurance proceeds in his home state.
To help persuade Australian authorities to return Watson to Alabama, former Alabama attorney general Troy King agreed not to seek the death penalty.
The defense says Tina Watson's death in 2003 was a tragic accident, and that Australian authorities botched the investigation.
Watson and Tina met while both were students at UAB and married Oct. 11, 2003. Their honeymoon turned deadly when the couple went scuba diving over a century-old shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef. Watson was an experienced diver, while Tina Watson was making her first dive after completing the certification process.
At a coroner's inquest in Australia, Watson said in a videotaped police interview that his wife began having trouble a few minutes into the dive, panicked and pulled off his mask. By the time he got the mask back on, he said she was sinking, and he went up for help.
One of the dive leaders pulled Tina Watson to the surface, but she never regained consciousness. Prosecutors contend Watson turned off her oxygen during what a witness called a "bear hug" and then let her sink to the bottom of the sea.
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