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August 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Gabe Watson Did Not Kill His Wife

Dr. Carl Edmonds says the evidence supports his innocence

from the August, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dr. Carl Edmonds, who co-wrote Diving Medicine for Scuba Divers and has written specialist journal articles on more than 100 diving deaths, is considered an expert in scuba matters. So when he goes against popular thought and says a "grave injustice" has been done in a notable murder trial, his opinion is worth listening to.

Edmonds, an Australian, believes Tina Watson, an American whose death at the Great Barrier Reef wreck of the SS Yongala in 2003 sparked a controversial murder case, was the victim of a simple diving accident. The "grave injustice" Edmonds refers to is the conviction of her husband of 11 days, Gabe Watson. He was charged with her murder by a Queensland coroner after a month-long inquest concluded that while diving from one of Mike Ball's boats, he had turned off his wife's air and left her to drown. In the court hearing, however, the issue of turning off her air was not brought up, but he was charged with not coming to her aid. After pleading guilty to manslaughter, he served 18 months in an Australian prison. However, authorities in his home state think he is guilty of murder and now Watson, who was deported to Alabama, is fighting those charges. (See our coverage of the case in the August 2007, July 2008 and July 2009 issues).

Edmonds told the Sydney Morning Herald that Watson's account to police of the events underwater, "all fits together very reasonably in a simple, straightforward diving accident." Tina Watson had a slim build and was "grossly overweighted" with 20 pounds of weights for her first ocean dive, more than twice what she needed with the equipment she was using. After analyzing her husband's statements to police, together with other medical evidence and equipment reports given during the inquest, Edmonds believes Tina didn't inflate her BCD while descending, which meant that when she reached the bottom of the descent line, Tina would have been "very, very negatively buoyant, like really, really heavy" and would have begun to sink -- and panic. A short press of the inflator button, as Gabe Watson told police he had seen her do, would not have been adequate at that depth unless depressed for a considerable time. In her ensuing panic, Tina had probably over-breathed her regulator. This led to an intake of water, loss of consciousness and drowning, while her regulator remained in her mouth.

After studying Gabe Watson's dive computer data printouts, Edmonds said that Watson's perceived slow ascent to the surface, in what was an emergency situation, could be explained. He had not ascended vertically, as did the divemaster who found Tina on the ocean floor several minutes later, and got her to the surface from 90 feet in 90 seconds. Watson, who had already drifted away from the wreck and the descent line, had ascended at an angle towards the line -- as well as against the current -- to shout for help. The 6-foot, 3-inch and bulky Watson "probably did very well to get to the surface in the time he did," which was estimated at the inquest to be about two minutes.

In several statements he gave to police, Watson said he had let go of Tina because she had dislodged his mask as he towed her, against the current, to the descent line. By the time he replaced the mask, he claimed she had sunk up to 10 feet below him. He gave differing versions of why he left her and went to the surface. But ''If you listen to Gabe's story, it is very consistent with a really straightforward, panicking diving accident,'' Edmonds said. "It's all very plausible. In fact, it's like so many other diving accidents."

He says the emphasis by authorities on Watson's certification as a rescue diver meant "nothing," unless he had been trained to rescue overweighted divers in an environment similar to the ocean currents of the Great Barrier Reef. With its changing currents, the Yongala was an unpredictable "difficult, often dangerous dive." Watson had learned to dive in a quarry in Birmingham, AL, and had received his rescue certificate four years before his wife died.

Edmonds' textbook Diving and Subaquatic Medicine was cited several times during the inquest in Queensland. He was contacted by investigators during inquiries into Tina's death, but was not called as an expert witness. He suspects this may be due to preferences for local Queenslanders, and for financial reasons. Instead, when initially contacted by investigators, Edmonds "simply answered questions of fact saying what should happen, not what did happen'' in relation to issues including ascent rates in emergencies. He now believes they ''may have misinterpreted what I have said and applied it to [Watson], when it really didn't apply."

Two months ago, Col McKenzie, a veteran diver and executive officer of Queensland's Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators publicly retracted what he initially told police as an expert witness. McKenzie now thinks Watson was incompetent and inept but not a murderer. He had been presented with certificates and diver logs, not shown to him by police, which revealed Watson had little ocean diving experience.

Watson was deported last November, but only after the U.S. gave assurances to the Australian government that he would not face the death penalty if convicted of the two counts of capital murder, with which he has since been charged. Prosecutors allege that Watson planned Tina's murder for financial gain from insurance policies, and took her to Australia for a honeymoon without revealing he intended to kill her. Watson is now scheduled to go on trial in February.

Vanessa Richardson

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