BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — The prosecution of Gabe Watson earlier this year in the 2003 Australian honeymoon drowning death of Tina Thomas Watson cost taxpayers about what they normally spend on a multi-week capital trial in Jefferson County, records show. The public price tag topped $60,000 for the eight-day trial in Birmingham last February, which ended abruptly when Circuit Judge Tommy Nail tossed out Watson’s capital charge before the case reached the jury.
But how that money was spent was just as unusual as the Watson case itself, in which the Alabama Attorney General pushed to lock up the Hoover man for the rest of his life, after he already had admitted negligent manslaughter in his wife’s death and served 18 months in prison there.
The Birmingham trial, and events around Tina Thomas Watson’s death while diving at a shipwreck on Oct. 22, 2003, will be the subject of a movie “Fatal Honeymoon,” which premieres tonight on the Lifetime cable network.
Typically in capital murder trials, the main costs to taxpayers are fees for court-appointed defense lawyers, a defense investigator and a mitigation expert, said Talitha Powers Bailey, director of the capital defense clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law.
For example, those expenses in Anthony Lane’s 2011 capital trial and death sentence cost taxpayers about $58,000, court records show. The defense of Jeffrey Riggs, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2010, cost taxpayers some $64,000. Both trials lasted longer than a week.
But Watson, 34, paid for his lawyers, Brett Bloomston, Joe Basgier and Mike Hanle as well as defense expenses and experts.
“There are very few defendants who can afford their own defense,” said Bailey, who estimated 90 percent of capital defendants in Alabama get court-appointed lawyers. “He is an exception.”
The major taxpayer cost in the Watson trial was flying and housing seven witnesses from Australia and seven other witnesses from five states outside Alabama, records obtained from the state Attorney General’s Office showed.
Their airfare cost some $21,000, hotels another $2,800 and their meals nearly $2,400, records show.
Other expenses included:
More than $10,000 in travel costs for state prosecutors and staff, mostly in Australia during the investigation, according to the attorney general’s office. Expenses such as copies, phone calls and transcriptions totaled nearly $1,600.
Expert witness fees for prosecutors exceeded $3,400, according to the attorney general’s office.
Extra security — three additional deputies posted in court each day — cost nearly $7,000, the Jefferson County sheriff’s office said.
Airfare to extradite Watson from Australia to Alabama cost more than $3,800, the state attorney general’s office said.
Jury selection, involving a larger-than-normal pool of 70 people, cost some $1,500, according to the circuit court administrator. Paying the final 14-member jury cost nearly $1,100 more.
No specific figure was available, but paying the judge and support staff during the eight-day trial cost an estimated $6,000.
Watson’s trial drew international attention, including several reporters from Australia. It attracted so many spectators — supporters for each side as well as the curious — the trial had to be moved to the largest courtroom in the county’s Criminal Justice Center.
Bailey gave state prosecutors credit for frugal spending, but said some people would consider any expenditure to prosecute Watson a second time in Alabama to be a waste.
In fact, Watson’s trial was delayed for nearly a year because county and state budget cuts had left the courthouse with inadequate security for the trial.
The state Attorney General’s Office declined further comment after releasing the trial-expense figures.
“I guess the question of stewardship of money really comes down to the prosecutors’ choice to bring the charges,” she said.
Watson’s capital prosecution was anything but typical. State prosecutors, not the local district attorney’s office, pressed the case during Troy King’s unsuccessful bid to be re-elected as attorney general.
Before Watson’s release from the Australian prison in late 2010, King’s office obtained an indictment in Jefferson County charging him with committing the capital crime of murder-for-profit in a scheme hatched in Hoover.
Watson could be convicted in Alabama despite the Australian guilty plea if the state could prove an element of the crime occurred in Alabama, Nail ruled.
To gain Watson’s extradition from Australia, which does not have capital punishment, Alabama prosecutors had to agree not to seek the death penalty.
That helped speed jury selection, since questioning individual jurors who express strong views about capital punishment often bogs down the process, Bailey said.
“There’s this kind of duel going on as they question the jury pool,” she said. “It takes a really long time.”
The most unusual turn was when Nail dismissed the case at roughly its evidentiary midpoint — after the prosecution had called its witnesses but before the defense put on its case.
The judge ruled the Alabama charge was based on speculation but not buoyed by proof that Watson intentionally killed his bride of 11 days or tried to profit from murder. Tina Thomas Watson’s death was not a crime in Alabama, he said.