Martin MacNeill defense calls just 4 witnesses; jury to be handed murder case Friday

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

Martin MacNeill speaks to his attorney Randy Spencer, left, before proceedings in Provo's 4th District Court on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. MacNeill is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill.

Mark Johnston

PROVO — Attorneys for Martin MacNeill mounted his defense with just four witnesses on Thursday, relying on the testimony of a co-worker and his daughter’s teacher to bolster the claim that the former doctor was at work or with his children when his wife died.

Jim Van Zant, a nurse at the Utah State Developmental Center, said he spoke to MacNeill as the clinical director was leaving the American Fork facility to pick up his daughter Ada from school. That was between 11 a.m. and noon, Van Zant testified. Within an hour or two, Van Zant said MacNeill called to report he was “doing a code on his wife.”

“He was quite in distress,” Van Zant said, later agreeing with a Utah County prosecutor that there was “no nonsense about (MacNeill’s) voice.”

Michele MacNeill, 50, was found unconscious in the bathtub of her Pleasant Grove home on April 11, 2007, about a week after having plastic surgery. Although no medical experts ruled the death was a homicide, five years later, prosecutors charged her husband with murder, saying he overdosed his wife on painkillers and sleeping pills and then held her under the water until she drowned.

Closing arguments in the case are set for Friday.

Van Zant’s accounting of his interactions with MacNeill were followed by testimony from Linda Strong, Ada MacNeill’s kindergarten teacher at a nearby school. She told jurors the half-day class was dismissed at 11:30 a.m. each day and that she remembers MacNeill picking his daughter up that day.

The testimonies of both Van Zant and Strong were offered to support the defense contention that MacNeill couldn’t be responsible for his wife’s death. In court papers, defense attorneys have said MacNeill went to work between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., returned home to take his young daughters to school a while later and then appeared at an 11 a.m. awards ceremony at work before picking up Ada to take her home.

Ada was the first person to find her mother in the bathtub, and phone records indicate MacNeill called 911 at both 11:46 a.m and 11:48 a.m. An emergency room doctor estimates Michele MacNeill likely died between 11:24 a.m. and 12:24 p.m.

But prosecutors, who called 36 witnesses, dispute the alibi and contend that some of MacNeill’s time is unaccounted for. In earlier testimony, investigator Jeff Robinson said he timed the drive between MacNeill’s work, home and Ada’s school multiple times. The locations are so close that all of the trips could be made within roughly five minutes, he said.

Also called by the defense was Tami Black, a probation officer who worked with Jason Poirier, a former Utah County Jail inmate who testified for the defense on Wednesday. Poirier told the jury MacNeill had said he was “getting away with killing my wife” when both men were in the jail last December.

The defense tried to use Black to discredit Poirier, who testified under a limited immunity agreement with prosecutors, as a liar, but they were cut short by Judge Derek P. Pullan after a complaint from prosecutors.

The final defense witness was ergonomics expert Brett Besser, who told the defense the location and position of the tub would have complicated any attempt to get a lifeless person out of the tub.

Besser said he used a surrogate to test various scenarios for lifting a person from the tub both with and without water.

“If there are other elements … like water on the floor, the shape of the tub, you can really only move (a person) in limited positions,” he said. "It's not to say it's impossible, but it would be quite the lift."

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