Jury: Martin MacNeill's 'heartless' nature, circumstantial evidence added up to murder
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
PROVO — For one juror, it came down to three questions: Did Martin MacNeill have the motive, opportunity and capability to kill his wife Michele?
Getting to the answers — yes, yes and yes — took the five men and three women who decided MacNeill’s fate some 11 hours of deliberation, the careful consideration of a mountain of circumstantial evidence and four weeks of witness testimony, some of which the panel deemed wasn’t too credible, according to a handful of jurors who spoke Wednesday to the Deseret News.
“It was a combination of all the evidence that really got me there,” juror Stuart Lewis said of the weekend guilty verdict. “There were too many things that shouldn’t have been that way unless he had done it.”
What added up to murder in the mind of the jury: MacNeill’s "erratic," sometimes "heartless" behavior after Michele’s April 11, 2007, death and the way his explanations of what happened to his wife changed depending on his audience. In addition, a medical examiner’s decision to alter the autopsy report three years later and prescription drugs were key to the case.
“This is a person who was thinking and calculating two or three moves down the road like a chess (player) would do,” said Randy, a juror who asked to be identified by his first name.
Jurors believed that MacNeill twice gave his wife overdose levels of medication — once after she came home from a hospital following plastic surgery on April 5 and again a few days later when she died.
“These were the two times that he was alone with her, and we know he gave her the medication the first time,” said Lewis, 28. “We believe the second time was intentional as well, absolutely.”
Randy noted it was suspicious that MacNeill said his wife’s death might have been caused by a drug overdose, well before toxicology reports revealed the number and levels of drugs in her blood.
“He knew that her were pills involved because he had something to do with it,” the juror said.
They were less swayed by the motive posited by prosecutors: MacNeill’s 18-month affair with Gypsy Willis, a 30-year-old nursing student. MacNeill hired Willis as a nanny to his young children within weeks of his wife’s death and proposed marriage just three months later.
“Having an affair is a far cry from murder,” Lewis said. “I think I felt the weight of our verdict. I don’t think it’s justified to put him in prison for life if he’s committed adultery.”
The jury handed down its verdict just after 1 a.m. Saturday in Provo’s 4th District Court. MacNeill, 57, was convicted of murder and obstruction of justice for drugging his 50-year-old wife and drowning her in the bathtub of their Pleasant Grove home.
Prosecutors said MacNeill used the plastic surgery as the cover for getting the necessary drugs and used his training as a physician to make the death seem accidental.
A onetime physician and the former director of the Utah State Developmental Center, MacNeill faces prison terms of 15 years to life on the murder conviction and one to 15 years for obstruction when sentenced in January.
Inside the jury room last Friday, the process began with an outpouring of thoughts and emotions, which by design had been bottled up because jurors are barred from discussion until the case is in their hands. Then it became both methodical and deliberate, Lewis said.
Some facts or witness testimonies were quickly set aside as either inconsequential or problematic.
The words from five jail and federal prison inmates, for example, seemed too loaded to be trusted, he said, even though one inmate said MacNeill told him that he was “getting away with murdering my wife” and another said MacNeill admitted drugging Michele and holding her head underwater so he could “help her out.”
“We actually discounted that. There was too much ulterior motive,” Lewis said, referring to the inmates' hopes for reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. “Do I think they were telling some of the truth? Yes. But was there a real possibility that they could be embellishing? There was.”
But there was sway in the combined effect and impact of what Lewis called MacNeill’s “erratic and heartless” behavior on the day of Michele’s death and beyond.
MacNeill’s well-documented rants in front of police, paramedics and emergency workers about his wife's unnecessary surgery, the amount of medication she may have taken and professions that she must have overdosed seemed suspicious. A seemingly fake attempt at administering CPR to his wife was similarly suspicious and seemed insincere, Lewis said.
MacNeill’s directive to his son and his son’s girlfriend to count out and document the amount of medication remaining in Michele’s pill bottles and then flush the drugs down the toilet right after the death was even more distressing.
“To us, that seemed calculated and intentional,” Lewis said.
Also troubling: The use of Michele’s funeral date as a fake wedding date for MacNeill and Willis and testimony from inmates that MacNeill had said he was “glad" his wife was dead.
“There was some heartlessness there,” said Lewis, noting that his opinions about the case swung from guilty to not guilty at different times based on the testimony of the day throughout the trial.
The testimony from the state’s star witness, MacNeill’s daughter Alexis Somers, was considered factually sound but viewed by the jury through the filter of her well-stated opinions, Lewis said. Somers had said on the stand that she believed MacNeill had killed her mother.
“I knew I had to evaluate her testimony very carefully. Anything particularly damning, I wanted a second opinion on,” he said.
Randy said he felt Somers knew exactly how to answer a question without necessarily telling the whole truth.
"We didn't just buy her testimony hook, line and sinker," he said.
Jenna, another juror who did not give her last name, said text messages MacNeill and Willis exchanged shortly after Michele’s death and even during the woman’s funeral showed that MacNeill was “heartless.”
“It just showed that he had no remorse for Michele. He was just moving right on,” she said.
Jenna was also troubled by Willis’ testimony and said the woman appeared to be “unconcerned” about what she had done.
“She was cold. She didn’t want to offer any extra information,” the juror said. “It seems like she didn’t care that she’d just destroyed their whole family, and that really bothered me.”
“I definitely felt she knew more information,” a juror identified only as Steve said of Willis. “I could tell she was minimizing.”
Lewis said the jury didn’t expect MacNeill to take the stand but was disappointed by his defense. Attorneys focused too much on picking apart inconsistent testimony from witnesses and not enough explaining the former doctor’s alibi or providing a “solid argument” to the prosecutors' case.
“It didn’t lend them a very strong case,” Lewis said.
When the jurors finally reached a decision, the mood in the jury room became reflective, and Lewis said he felt simultaneously nervous and relieved.
“You realize that everybody is in agreement, so this is really going to happen,” he said.
Walking back into the courtroom and waiting for a clerk to read the verdict out loud, Lewis was overcome with the heartbreaking nature of MacNeill’s acts and avoided making any eye contact.
“It was so difficult to look at him,” the juror recalled. “He ruined so many lives. He’s ruining his own life.”
Afterward, jurors met with prosecutors, the MacNeill daughters and others from Michele’s families. Too awake to sleep, when Lewis finally got home at 2:30 a.m., he spoke briefly to a friend and then got online to pour through news coverage from the trial — something jurors weren’t allowed to do over the past month.
“It solidified that Martin had questionable character,” Lewis said. “In that respect, I’m that much more confident that he could have done it.”
Contributing: Sam Penrod
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