: A Second Chance For Justice: The Prosecutions Of Gabe Watson For The Death Of Tina Thomas

A Second Chance For Justice: The Prosecutions Of Gabe Watson For The Death Of Tina Thomas

Daniel Reynolds

SecondChanceforJusticeAsher Flynn and Kate Fitz-Gibbon; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013; 270 pages; £44.99 (hardback)

A full decade since the tragic death of Tina Thomas during a diving expedition in Townsville, Queensland on 22 October 2003, there remain two competing versions of what occurred that day. It is common ground that Tina had married Gabe Watson a week earlier in Alabama, flown to Australia with him to celebrate their honeymoon, and that the two had signed up for a night-time dive to explore the wreck of the SS Yongala. This is where accounts begin to differ, with Gabe maintaining that Tina’s drowning was a freak accident which he simply failed to prevent. Prosecutors, on the other hand, alleged murder.

Asher Flynn and Kate Fitz-Gibbon’s A Second Chance for Justice is a remarkable work which seeks to give a full picture of what happened after this incident. The authors locate this narrative in the context of a discussion on the nature and attainability of justice, exploring the inadequacy of a judicial process that took over eight years to conclusively settle the case. Witness the under-resourced initial police investigations, a suspended coronial inquest, a controversial plea bargain, a sentencing appeal, 18 months’ imprisonment, and then most unusually, a reprise of this entire process overseas, with Gabe finding himself indicted by a grand jury in Alabama, held in immigration detention in Queensland before being deported to the US, and finally, acquitted by a judge on a charge of capital murder for pecuniary gain.

Where the book is most successful is in its relentlessly comprehensive account of the various episodes, turning points, responses and conflicting perspectives that made up the Watson saga. Other attempts have previously been made to tell this story — including an American telemovie ominously titled Fatal Honeymoon — yet none have come close to matching the depth of research that has gone into this book. Flynn and Fitz-Gibbon conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with key parties involved in the litigation and investigations, assembled media extracts and public statements, reviewed the litany of legal documents compiled over the nearly nine-year period, and even managed to personally attend every day of the capital murder trial in Alabama. The result is a vivid — and often quite moving — rendering of this important story.

Concerns raised in the book about the Australian and US justice systems are alarming. The chronic underfunding of the Queensland Police Service, for instance, casts doubt on the efficacy of police investigators to complete their inquiries while evidence is still relatively easy to procure: the fact that the police could not afford new technologies that would allow them to construct a 3D model of the dive site, for instance, precluded them from being able to scientifically test Gabe’s assertions about what really went on underwater. Similarly, the limited resources and resulting inefficiencies both within the Queensland Supreme Court and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions meant the Watson case suffered from excessive adjournments and delays, despite a (supposedly squandered) one-off grant of dedicated funding specifically for the case, shortly before the plea bargain was reached. And on it goes with abuses of power by key decision-makers, lies told to the victim’s family, violations of human rights, and so on. It is difficult to read this book and not be struck by the clear and often flagrant failings of the entire process, and indeed, as a study on the many ways our judicial system desperately needs reform, A Second Chance for Justice should be essential reading.

That said, and despite the book’s notable achievements, I did feel that it was often not as neutral as it purported. The authors set up their work as an investigation into competing conceptions of justice, acknowledging from the outset that one party’s justice may be another party’s ruin, and thanking in the introduction both families for their involvement in the project. As the story unfolds, though, the reader gets the sense that Tina’s family are receiving the more favourable treatment. First, we see an unusual readiness in the authors to justify decisions made by prosecutors and investigators in progressing the case, accompanied by a reluctance to make the same concessions for those on the defence side; later, the authors are indignant that the Queensland trial considered the ‘good’ character of Gabe — as though it were a fait accompli that he was of bad character; finally, whenever the facts are unclear, the authors show a propensity to infer the explanation least consistent with Gabe’s innocence.

All this would be easily resolved if the authors were more overt about their apparent preference for the Thomas family’s case. In my view, the text is only problematic insofar as the authors claim to be impartial, as they struggle to convincingly appear so. Distancing language is often employed to create an impression of neutrality, but is then withdrawn when the authors wish to adopt an inference as fact, for example: ‘The perceived failure of Brendan Campbell to adhere to both his external and internal obligations is another example of the inability of the legal response to Tina’s death in Queensland to achieve justice’. To be fair, much of the imbalance flows from the fact that several key players on the defence side declined to be interviewed — including Gabe Watson and his defence lawyers — and it should also be noted that the authors do, in some places, present the defence arguments in equal measure to those of the prosecution (particularly in Part III). Given the undoubted relevance of the issues that Flynn and Fitz-Gibbon raise, I would venture that the book is better for the questions it asks than the answers it gives.

All things considered, A Second Chance for Justice is an impressive feat of investigative journalism, backed by a staggering amount of primary and secondary research and is, above all, a commendable study on that famously elusive ideal — justice.

DANIEL REYNOLDS is a summer clerk at Herbert Smith Freehills.

(2013) 38(4) AltLJ 283
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