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

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 12:46 a.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) 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.

Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill, left, confers with a member of his defense team during the opening day of his trial. He is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill, left, confers with a member of his defense team during the opening day of his trial. He is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

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.

Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill appears in 4th District Court in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is on trial for murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill appears in 4th District Court in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is on trial for murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

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.

Deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead speaks with his team during the opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. MacNeill is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead speaks with his team during the opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. MacNeill is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

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.

Defense attorneys Randy Spencer and Susanne Gustin confer during opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. (Al Hartmann) Defense attorneys Randy Spencer and Susanne Gustin confer during opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. (Al Hartmann)

Pead also painted a picture of an erratic and sometimes explosive MacNeill, who gave differing accounts of finding his wife in the tub, hung up on 911 operators and destroyed or tampered with evidence in his home, including asking his son’s girlfriend to toss out his wife's leftover painkillers.

Prosecutors played a recording of MacNeill’s frantic 911 call. In it, MacNeill screams at dispatchers for help. Pead told jurors MacNeill lied to dispatchers about performing CPR on his wife before several neighbors came to his aid.

Gustin encouraged jurors to rely on the facts, not their emotions, in deciding the case — even if they think MacNeill is a “total jerk.” Prosecutors, she said, conducted a backward investigation and “cherry-picked” details from MacNeill’s life which they perceive demonstrate his guilt. That process that has skewed the truth, she said.

Judge Derek Pullan, left, calls prosecuter Chad Grunader and defense attorney Randy Spencer to the bench for a conference just minutes into the opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. MacNeill is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Judge Derek Pullan, left, calls prosecuter Chad Grunader and defense attorney Randy Spencer to the bench for a conference just minutes into the opening day of Martin MacNeill's murder trial in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013. MacNeill is charged with murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

“They started with the premise that Martin killed Michele,” Gustin said.

Jurors heard from the prosecution’s first two witnesses Thursday afternoon. Scott Thompson was the plastic surgeon who gave MacNeill her face lift and Von Welch, a physician who gave her a pre-operative exam.

Welch said the woman was healthy, but suffered from high blood pressure and depression. He testified to recommending that she begin taking anti-depressants and delay the surgery until after she got her blood pressure under control.

Martin MacNeill was present when the advice was offered and seemed disappointed at the proposition of a delay, but didn’t disagree, Welch said.

Thompson told the court he deviated from his normal prescriptions of antibiotics, steroids, eyedrops, sleep medication and post-surgery painkillers at Martin MacNeill’s behest.

Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill appears in 4th District Court in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is on trial for murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Former Pleasant Grove physician Martin MacNeill appears in 4th District Court in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is on trial for murder in the 2007 death of his wife Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

“Martin indicated to me that he was very concerned about his wife,” Thompson told the jury. “That she didn’t handle pain well, and was anxious.”

Thompson said he normally would not trust a patient to use the medications correctly, but agreed because MacNeill was a physician and his wife’s primary care doctor. In check-up appointments about a week after the surgery, Michele MacNeill appeared to be doing well and using fewer pain medications, he said.

“I think she was starting to get excited,” Thompson said. “She was beginning to see the results. She was positive and I was very happy with her progress.”

Both men were troubled by the news of her death.

Family members of Michele McNeill listen to testimony as Martin MacNeill's trial starts in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is charged with murder and obstruction in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann) Family members of Michele McNeill listen to testimony as Martin MacNeill's trial starts in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. He is charged with murder and obstruction in the 2007 death of his wife, Michele MacNeill. (Al Hartmann)

“I was shocked,” Welch testified. “Because at the time that I examined her, she was healthy and it was just unexpected that she would have a bad outcome from surgery.”

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