Legal community split on Utah doctor's conviction

Nov 12 2013 - 11:25am

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Martin MacNeill speaks with his attorney Randy Spencer, left, after he was found guilty of murder and obstruction of justice early Saturday morning, Nov. 9, 2013. He faces 15 years to life for first-degree murder when he is sentenced Jan. 7. He also was found guilty of obstruction of justice, which could add 1-15 years. MacNeill was led by deputies back to Utah County jail. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Scott Sommerdorf)
Martin MacNeill speaks with his attorney Randy Spencer, left, after he was found guilty of murder and obstruction of justice early Saturday morning, Nov. 9, 2013. He faces 15 years to life for first-degree murder when he is sentenced Jan. 7. He also was found guilty of obstruction of justice, which could add 1-15 years. MacNeill was led by deputies back to Utah County jail. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Scott Sommerdorf)

SALT LAKE CITY -- The legal community's reaction to a Utah doctor's murder conviction was mixed Monday, with some attorneys calling the verdict "disturbing" and others saying the jury did its job.

A jury on Saturday found Martin MacNeill guilty of killing his wife in a bathtub, though medical examiners were unable to rule the 2007 death a homicide and prosecutors built a case largely on circumstantial evidence.

"This verdict is disturbing because at no point in the state's case was anyone able to say, `This woman was murdered,'" said Neal Hamilton, the head of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "A jury convicted a man of murder because of pure speculation."

He called that prospect "terrifying" for any criminal defendant entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Other legal analysts said they weren't surprised by the verdict against Martin MacNeill. The jury reached its decision early Saturday after 11 hours of deliberation and three weeks of trial.

Once the jury decided Michele MacNeill's death wasn't accidental or natural, "the only question was: Who did it?" said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge. "The jury can always ask the obvious question, `If not him, who?' And if there's no answer to that, it may be a quick verdict."

A handful of jailhouse snitches may have sealed the jury's decision, said prominent Utah defense attorney Greg Skordas. The inmates testified that Martin MacNeill acknowledged drugging and leaving his wife to die in the tub - or bragged that investigators couldn't prove he did it.

Testimony about the doctor's character - most notably, his angry rants blaming his wife for her own death - worked against him, Skordas said. Family members, neighbors, police, paramedics and hospital workers testified that MacNeill loudly cursed his wife for insisting on getting a face-lift and taking too much medication for her recovery.

Family testimony showed it was MacNeill who insisted his wife get cosmetic surgery. Prosecutors said MacNeill used the opportunity to "pump her full of drugs."

His mistress may have been another factor that caused the jury to turn on him, attorneys said. Gypsy Willis' testimony was the highlight of the three-week trial. MacNeill introduced her as a nanny within weeks of his wife's death, but his older daughters quickly recognized her as his secret lover. They said her mother had been arguing with her husband over the affair.

Willis told "Inside Edition" that she didn't believe MacNeill killed for her.

Prosecutors differed in their closing arguments.

"This is swapping out Michele for Gypsy on Martin's terms: `I'm not going to pay alimony, give up the house, pay child support, or be discovered as an adulterer and hypocrite. I'm going to switch out Michele for Gypsy on my terms,'" Deputy Utah County Attorney Jared Perkins had said.

Randy Spencer, MacNeill's chief defense lawyer, said that MacNeill had "an abundance of reasonable doubt" working in his favor but seemed resigned to his fate.

"Obviously, it wasn't the result he had hoped for, and we're very disappointed with the result, too," Spencer said Monday. "But Martin recognized whether he was convicted or acquitted, he didn't have a lot to look forward to. He lost his family and his livelihood."

MacNeill gave up his medical license.

Spencer said that he was certain an appeal of MacNeill's conviction would be filed but that he would leave that to another lawyer.

Prosecutors were first to admit they faced an uphill battle convicting MacNeill because of the lack of evidence. Instead, they presented a "mountain of motive" that was hard to ignore.

The jury found one of MacNeill's daughters, Alexis Somers, a doctor herself, "extremely credible," said Chad Grunander, the chief prosecutor in the case.

Somers testified that she believed her father killed her mother and that she caught him giving his wife too much medication days before her death.

 

New York attorney Barry Slotnick, who represented subway shooter Bernhard Goetz in 1984, said the Utah jury was confronted with the case of a dead body and it had to determine why and how it happened. He likened the case to a man falling off a building and a jury deciding if he slipped or was pushed.

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