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."
Deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead tried to dissect a report from Besser, noting that many of the examples he cited were specifically tied to how one person could lift another without suffering an injury. The report notes that in some situations, an “ergonomic intervention” such as an electronic or mechanical device provides the safest means of lifting.
“Are you suggesting we should have waited with Michele until there was a mechanical or electrical device there to lift her?” Pead asked.
“I don’t think so,” Besser replied.
Prosecutors wrapped up their case by calling MacNeill’s former lover, Gypsy Willis, back to the stand to read aloud from letters the pair exchanged while both were in federal prison.
“You are worth everything I go through to get you back in my life,” MacNeill penned in one of dozens of letters he wrote to Willis in 2009. And in another: “Whatever I have is yours,” MacNeill wrote amid professions of his love.
Willis, now 37, returned MacNeill’s letters but not his feelings, she told jurors. The relationship was over, Willis said, but she welcomed the support.
“I was very lonely,” she testified. “I was thrilled out of my mind to get a letter.”
In one letter, MacNeill wrote that he had told people at his prison in Texas that she was his common law wife. “Why don’t we just get married for real?” he wrote her.
But by 2010, Willis told investigators who were considering bringing a murder charge against MacNeill that although she had once planned a life with him, that idea now frightened her.
“I found myself in prison for two years as a result of being with this guy,” said Willis, adding that previously her only criminal offenses were parking tickets. “That was terrifying to me.”
MacNeill, who has maintained a stoic expression throughout most of the four-week trial, lifted his glasses and appeared to wipe tears away with his finger as Willis testified.
Prosecutors believe MacNeill, 57, killed his wife in order to begin a new life with Willis, a then 30-year-old nursing student who met MacNeill online in 2005. Within weeks of his wife’s death, MacNeill hired Willis as a live-in nanny to his young children.
Under cross-examination, Willis said she hasn’t seen or spoken to MacNeill for nearly five years and stopped sending him letters after she was released from prison in February of 2011. Both she and MacNeill went to prison in 2009 after begin convicted of identity theft for using a passport belonging to his teen daughter to create a fake ID for Willis.
Prosecutors have called her a hostile witness, suggesting that she still harbors feelings for MacNeill. She denied that again on Thursday — answering a firm “no” when asked by prosecutors if she was protective of MacNeill — and said she is in a new relationship.
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