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Natural death or murder plot? Jurors hear 2 views as Martin MacNeill trial begins

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 2:15 p.m. MDT

Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill, center, confers with defense attorneys Randy Spencer and Susanne Gustin during the opening day of his trial. He is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill.

Al Hartmann

PROVO — Michele MacNeill died of natural causes — not murder — and investigators have worked to find a way around scientific facts in order to bring charges against her husband, a defense attorney told jurors Thursday.

“They didn’t like the science in this case,” attorney Susanne Gustin said during opening statements in the murder trial of Martin MacNeill. “They didn’t like the science because the objective science in this case shows a natural cause for Michele’s passing.”

Multiple autopsies found that Michele MacNeill, 50, suffered from at least one form of heart disease, which likely contributed to her death.

“The real culprit in this case, the serpent if you will, was heart disease,” Gustin told the jury of six men and five women.

MacNeill was found dead and submerged in a bathtub at home by her youngest daughter on April 11, 2007. Her husband was not charged with any crime until five years later, after prosecutors convinced the state medical examiner’s office to reconsider its initial findings and it ruled the manner of her death was “undetermined” and suspicious.

In all, three medical examiners evaluated the death, two who work for the state of Utah and one from Florida who is a paid expert for the defense. None found the toxicity level of Michele’s blood extraordinarily high.

“None of the medical examiners believe that Michele’s death was due to a homicide,” Gustin said.

MacNeill has pleaded not guilty to murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second degree felony. If he is convicted, the former doctor and clinical director of the Utah State Developmental Center could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead told jurors that although MacNeill died in 2007, the case really begins about 18 months earlier, when her husband began an affair with Gypsy Willis, triggering a series of lies and deceptions against his family.

“This case is a puzzle with many pieces,” Pead said.

Prosecutors have nearly 60 people on the list of witnesses they may call, including MacNeill’s daughters, Willis and a string of prison and jail inmates who spoke with MacNeill while he was incarcerated before or after his conviction on federal charges of aggravated identity theft.

Those inmates will testify that MacNeill used a derogatory term to refer to his wife and said he was glad she was dead. MacNeill told one man that he gave “his wife drugs and sleeping pills to get her to pass out and die” and had “held her under the water to help her out,” Pead said.

In more than one instance, MacNeill told fellow inmates that “law enforcement could not prove it was murder” and that “he can get away within things,” the prosecutor said.

Prosecutors contend that MacNeill used a cocktail of painkillers — prescribed to Michele MacNeill following plastic surgery a week earlier — to over-medicate his wife before drowning her and used his physician training to make the death look like an accident. Investigators say the motive for the crime was MacNeill’s desire to make a new life with his mistress, Willis.

At his wife’s funeral, MacNeill also made strange statements to some mourners about having to adjust to “being a bachelor again,” and he exchanged at least 20 texts with Willis, who also attended the services, Pead said. Within weeks, Willis moved into the family home to act as the children’s “nanny” and by July, she had married MacNeill.

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