PROVO — Martin MacNeill gave his wife drugs, got her in a bathtub and held her head underwater because she stood “in the way” of his plans to make a new life with his mistress, an inmate testified Wednesday.
“He said he gave her some 'oxy' and gave her some sleeping pills, some kind of sleeping pills, and got her to get in the bathtub,” the man identified as Inmate No. 1 testified, referring to OxyContin.
“Later he just said he had to help her out. … He said he held her head underwater for a little while.”
"Did he use the phrase 'help her out?''' asked prosecutor Chad Grunander.
"Yes," the man replied.
The inmate, who was incarcerated with MacNeill in Texarkana Federal Prison, said MacNeill confided in him over a period of days following a TV broadcast about allegations that MacNeill had killed his wife. MacNeill, who was nicknamed “Doc” in prison, allegedly explained that he wanted to make a life with his girlfriend, whom he had been seeing while still married to Michele MacNeill.
“He said that (Michele) was in the way, that she wanted the house and the kids,” said Inmate No. 1, who took computer classes with MacNeill in prison. “He wanted something else.”
MacNeill also said that police "couldn’t prove that he did anything," the inmate said.
The former director of the Utah Developmental Center who is also an attorney, MacNeill is charged with murder and obstruction of justice in the April 11, 2007, death of his wife.
A onetime California beauty queen, Michele MacNeill, 50, was found unconscious and partially submerged in the bathtub of the couple’s Pleasant Grove home about one week after having plastic surgery. Prosecutors say MacNeill, 57, overdosed his wife on pain medication and other drugs before drowning her in the tub. They contend MacNeill was motivated to kill because of an affair with Gypsy Willis, who has also testified against him.
The inmate was one of five — four from federal prison and one from the Utah County Jail — to claim MacNeill shared details of his wife’s death while incarcerated. Each told some version of the same story that MacNeill said investigators could never prove that he had murdered his wife.
Defense attorney Randall Spencer tried to discredit each witness, noting in detail their histories of criminal offenses or lying and stating that each could possibly gain something for testifying against MacNeill.
With Inmate No. 1, Spencer pointed to an email the man wrote to a niece after hearing MacNeill had been charged, stating his belief that “he knew he did it and that he would surely be able to come home if he went to authorities with what he knew." Spencer also combed through transcripts of calls between the inmate and his family in which he says he won’t testify against MacNeill unless he can get a deal with authorities that will get him out of prison by Christmas of this year, even calling the plan “Operation Utah.”
But the inmate, who said the label was just a joke, insisted his motives for talking were more pure and that he has been given no such deal.
“I want to be a changed person,” the man testified. “I made some wrong decisions and I just want to do right.”
Earlier in the day, a Holladay man who was with MacNeill in the Utah County Jail told jurors he initially thought the man was joking when he told him he had killed his wife.
Jason Poirier said he approached MacNeill in December 2012 to ask him why his shoes differed from standard jail issue and said MacNeill replied:
“I get away with a lot of things. I’m getting away with murdering my wife.”
Days later, a troubled Poirier went back to MacNeill, offering condolences and asking if MacNeill was serious about the things he had said.
“He threw up his arms and said, “Look where I’m at. Does it look like I’m joking?’” said Poirier, who testified under an immunity deal with prosecutors because he is accused of several felonies. “He said, ‘I’m glad the bitch is dead.'”
Judge Derek Pullan ruled Tuesday that Poirier and other inmates could testify about MacNeill's alleged use of that derogatory term.
Poirier said he then asked guards to move him to a housing unit away from MacNeill.
“I didn’t want to be around him,” said Poirier, adding that he had earlier sought medical advice from MacNeill, shared poetry with him and read an autobiography MacNeill had scripted.
Prosecutors questioned Poirier for only about 20 minutes. Spencer, however, kept him on the stand much longer, peppering Poirier with questions about his lengthy criminal history, which includes some 13 arrests since 2006, numerous convictions and stints on probation. He also questioned the man's motivation for testifying, but Poirier said he came forward because it was "the moral thing to do."
MacNeill was convicted of identity theft charges in 2009 and sentenced to four years in federal prison for stealing the passport of his 16-year-old adopted daughter and using it to get false documents for Willis. Jurors won’t heard those details because the judge ruled it inadmissible and prejudicial.
Pullan also denied a motion Wednesday by defense attorneys for a mistrial after a news report about the case was accidentally broadcast during cross-examination of Poirier.
"Who has that? Shut that off!" Pullan said loudly as the video played. Later, the judge explained that he intentionally shouted to drown out the sound so jurors wouldn't hear it.
The source of the video was the laptop of a prosecution staffer who was sitting behind attorneys.
Spencer argued that the disruption was grounds for a mistrial and said he heard remarks about his client's wife being found in a bathtub. The judge later listened to 30 seconds of the video before determining that no harm had occurred.
Willis is expected to be the final witnesses for prosecutors Thursday. The defense indicated it will likely call four witnesses and jurors could begin deliberations on Friday.
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