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Jury selection underway in Martin MacNeill murder trial

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 11:50 a.m. MDT

Alexis Somers keeps framed photos of her mother, Michele MacNeill, around her home in South Jordan on Aug. 24, 2012. MacNeill died in 2007. Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of her husband, Martin MacNeill, who is charged with murdering her. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Alexis Somers keeps framed photos of her mother, Michele MacNeill, around her home in South Jordan on Aug. 24, 2012. MacNeill died in 2007. Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of her husband, Martin MacNeill, who is charged with murdering her. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO — The murder trial of a former Pleasant Grove physician accused in his wife's bathtub drowning death got off to a slow start Tuesday, as attorneys and a judge ploughed throughslow start on Tuesday, as the jury selection process crept into the evening hours.

Martin MacNeill, 57, is charged in Provo's 4th District Court with murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony, in 2010 — nearly three years after Michele MacNeill was found dead by her youngest daughter on April 11, 2007,

An initial autopsy found the 50-year-old mother of eight, who had undergone plastic surgery a week earlier, died of natural causes. But the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office later reconsidered its finding and labeled the death suspicious.

MacNeill has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has consistently denied any involvement in his wife’s death. If convicted of the crimes, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Martin MacNeill, a Pleasant Grove doctor charged with murdering his wife Michele MacNeill, appears in a Provo court on Oct. 3, 2012.  His trial began Tuesday with jury selection. (Al Hartmann) Martin MacNeill, a Pleasant Grove doctor charged with murdering his wife Michele MacNeill, appears in a Provo court on Oct. 3, 2012. His trial began Tuesday with jury selection. (Al Hartmann)

The process was expected to continue into the evening and again on Wednesday.

Jurors were being asked about their responses to a 22-page questionnaire which they completed about 10 days ago.

Among the 185 questions posed: Would the fact that MacNeill was having an affair impede a juror’s ability to be fair and whether potential jurors, or anyone they know, had taken painkillers or had plastic surgery.

Opening statements in the trial, which is expected to last five weeks, are scheduled to begin on Thursday.

Prosecutors contend MacNeill used a dangerous cocktail of painkillers — prescribed a week earlier after Michele had plastic surgery — to over-medicate his wife of nearly 30 years and drown her. Investigators believe the one-time clinical director of the Utah State Developmental Center capitalized on the surgery to acquire the drugs and used his skills as a physician to make the death appear accidental.

Family members Kimberly Popish, Jill Harper-Smith, Linda Cluff, Alexis Somers, and Rachel MacNeill, left to right, talk to the media after a court hearing on Aug. 27, 2012. Martin Joseph MacNeill is charged with murdering his wife, Michele MacNeill, in 2007. Jury selection in his trial began Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Family members Kimberly Popish, Jill Harper-Smith, Linda Cluff, Alexis Somers, and Rachel MacNeill, left to right, talk to the media after a court hearing on Aug. 27, 2012. Martin Joseph MacNeill is charged with murdering his wife, Michele MacNeill, in 2007. Jury selection in his trial began Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

They believe MacNeill killed his wife in order to begin a new life with his longtime mistress, Gypsy Willis.

Defense attorney Randall Spencer has said there is "zero evidence" to show that MacNeill administered the medications. The case is full of "Hollywood-esque stereotypes" and evidence of "bad acts" by his client, but no evidence that shows Michele MacNeill was murdered, Spencer has said.

The case against MacNeill is largely circumstantial, but a judge who heard the evidence against him a year ago said his unusual actions and contradictions before and after her death created valid suspicions for a jury to consider.

From the outside, the MacNeill family may have seemed perfect to others, but court records and investigative documents suggest that life inside the home had been crumbling. As far back as 2000, MacNeill had threatened to kill his wife and himself with a butcher knife after an argument over his use of pornography.

Martin Joseph MacNeill, left, talks with attorney Randall Spencer Aug. 27, 2012. The murder trial for Martin MacNeill began Tuesday with jury selection. The Pleasant Grove doctor and attorney is accused of killing his wife in 2007. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Martin Joseph MacNeill, left, talks with attorney Randall Spencer Aug. 27, 2012. The murder trial for Martin MacNeill began Tuesday with jury selection. The Pleasant Grove doctor and attorney is accused of killing his wife in 2007. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The couple also argued about six weeks before Michele's death, when she confronted her husband over phone records and demanded to know whether he was having an affair with Willis. Within weeks of Michele's death, MacNeill introduced his children to Willis as their new nanny and she moved into their home.

But long before the marital discord and accusations of murder, Martin MacNeill had a history of lying and manipulative behaviors, including convincing the military he suffered from latent schizophrenia and other mental health issues to get disability payments, falsifying academic transcripts to get into both medical and law schools, and accusations of assualts and professional misconduct while working at the BYU Health Center.

MacNeill also has a criminal record includes convictions for forgery, theft and fraud, for which he served six months in jail shortly after his 1978 marriage to Michele. In 2009, he was convicted in federal court of aggravated identity theft charges for using the identity of his 16-year-old adopted daughter to create documents and a new persona for Willis. Willis was also convicted of the same charge and both served federal prison sentences.

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