Murder charges filed against man accused of killing wife on honeymoon in Australia

Thursday, November 25, 2010 | 4:15 p.m. CST

LOS ANGELES — An Alabama man accused of killing his wife during their honeymoon on the Great Barrier Reef has been indicted on two murder counts, the state attorney general said Thursday after the suspect arrived in the United States from Australia, where he served an 18-month prison sentence for the 2003 drowning death.

Gabe Watson, 33, arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday morning after he was deported on a commercial flight from the southern Australian city of Melbourne. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Watson was accompanied by two Immigration Department staff and three Queensland state police officers on the flight. Watson cleared customs within an hour and was taken away in handcuffs.

Los Angeles police Lt. Aaron McCraney told The Associated Press that Watson was booked at a local police substation after his arrival. He will likely make a court appearance in Los Angeles before being sent back to Alabama.

Alabama hopes to make arrangements to bring Watson back to the state early next week, said Attorney General Troy King, who criticized Australian authorities by saying they showed Watson too much leniency.

"The Australians extorted from the state and the victim's family to water down our justice, just like they watered down theirs," King said.

"Why did they decide to shield a man from punishment for what he did?" King said. "I don't understand it."

Watson pleaded guilty last year in Australia to the manslaughter of his wife of 11 days, 26-year-old Tina Watson. He had been in immigration custody since completing a prison sentence earlier this month. Australia, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, delayed his deportation until it received a pledge from the U.S. government that it would not seek the death penalty against Watson.

King has promised not to seek the death penalty as a condition for getting Australian authorities to extradite Watson. He said Watson was indicted by an Alabama grand jury on capital murder in the course of kidnapping, and capital murder for pecuniary gain.

The grand jury returned the indictment around the time of the 7-year-anniversary of the Oct. 22, 2003, death, but the charges were sealed until Watson was returned to the country, King said.

King refused to discuss the evidence in the case in detail. But he said prosecutors believe that Watson hatched a plan to kill his wife while they were in Alabama, which gives the state jurisdiction over her death.

"We're obviously anxious to get him back to Alabama," King said.

Watson could seek to fight the extradition request.

Australian Immigration Minister Bowen said Watson returned to the United States voluntarily after both Alabama and U.S. federal authorities guaranteed that he would not face the death penalty.

Watson's lawyer, Adrian Braithwaite, said his client was happy to go.

"He's looking forward to returning home and successfully defending himself if there's a trial there," Braithwaite told The Associated Press.

Watson was dubbed the "Honeymoon Killer" by the Australian media after his wife drowned during a 2003 scuba diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland's tropical coast with her husband, an accomplished diver.

In 2008, the Queensland state coroner found there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson with her death, and he was officially charged with murder a few months later.

In 2009, Watson — who had remarried — traveled to Australia to face trial.

Officials in Queensland state argued he killed his wife by turning off her air supply and holding her underwater. When Watson pleaded guilty to the lesser manslaughter charge last year, he was sentenced to 18 months — a punishment Tina Watson's family and Alabama authorities slammed as far too lenient.

Queensland Coroner David Glasgow said a possible motive for the killing was Tina Watson's modest life insurance policy.

King has argued there are no international standards on double jeopardy that prevent Alabama from trying Watson again over the death.

Bowen said it was not an issue for Australia whether there was a new prosecution.

"My role has been to ensure that we fulfill our treaty obligations, we've done that," Bowen told reporters in Canberra. "Double jeopardy is not covered by our treaty obligations."

Under Australia's Extradition Act, a person cannot be deported to face prosecution on a capital charge unless there is an assurance the death penalty will not be imposed.

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