Bill Hewitt
June 22, 2009 12:00 PM

The first surprise was when Gabe Watson suddenly agreed to return to Australia in May to face a charge of murdering his wife, Tina, during a honeymoon scuba-diving excursion off the Great Barrier Reef in 2003. Tina’s father, Tommy Thomas, who had been expecting a lengthy extradition battle, voiced relief that Watson’s decision had spared his family “another couple of years of grief.” But that satisfaction turned to disbelief and outrage on June 5 when Watson entered a Brisbane courtroom and was allowed to plead guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter—in return for a sentence that will put him behind bars for less than a year. Said a shaken Thomas outside the court: “I am totally shocked. It’s ludicrous.”

He was not the only one stunned by the plea deal. The attorney general in Queensland, Australia, immediately said he would consider any appeal of the sentence. Officials in Alabama, where the Watsons lived, said it was their understanding that Australian prosecutors had a strong case against Gabe, 32, a businessman from the town of Hoover who has since remarried. Ultimately, though, Australian prosecutors apparently believed the best they could hope for was to prove that Gabe was, in effect, a negligent diving buddy. Without clear evidence of Watson’s intent to kill his wife, says Terry O’Gorman, a criminal law specialist in Australia, “They never would have got a [murder] conviction.”

Tina’s family remains convinced that such evidence does exist. Among other things, an Australian coroner concluded there was reason to believe that Gabe had cut off his wife’s oxygen supply and held her underwater. Another seemingly incriminating fact was that Gabe, an experienced diver who was certified for scuba rescue, claimed that he quickly surfaced for help when he saw Tina, 26, was in trouble—yet his dive computer showed that he had taken a leisurely 2½ minutes to ascend 45 feet. “We’re going to fight for Tina as long as we’re alive,” says her sister Alanda. “That sentence is a joke.”

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