PROVO — Motivated by his love for another woman, Martin MacNeill used his wife’s plastic surgery as the cover for committing an “almost perfect murder,” prosecutors said Friday.
“And I say almost perfect murder because, along the way, he left a number of clues that point to him as the murderer,” deputy Utah County attorney Chad Grunander told jurors considering MacNeill’s fate.
The clues — from insisting Michele MacNeill have surgery, to researching and requesting specific drugs for her recovery, an incidence of over-medication, inconsistent statements, and his growing commitment to mistress Gypsy Willis — all point, he said, to how and why Martin MacNeill killed his wife.
“The defendant's fingerprints, if you will, are all over Michele’s death,” Grunander said during closing arguments.
Defense attorney Randall Spencer countered, however, that those clues aren’t facts that prove guilt, but “cherry-picked” details from events, circumstances or statements that fit the prosecution’s theories about what happened to Michele MacNeill.
“There’s not evidence in this case that rises to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Spencer told the jury of five men and three women.
The jury deliberated more than 9 ½ hours until 11:30 p.m. Friday when the judge asked them if they wanted to go home for the night. Jurors sent a note back saying they wanted to continue to deliberate. It was unclear whether they would work through the night or were close to a verdict.
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. Five years later, after family pushed for an investigation, prosecutors charged MacNeill with murder and obstruction of justice, claiming he overdosed his wife on painkillers and sleeping pills and then held her under the water until she drowned.
But only one of three medical examiners who considered the case ruled that the death was the result of drowning. One said she died of natural causes related to heart disease, and a third said a combination of heart disease and drug toxicity were the cause. None, however, could declare definitively that the manner of death was homicide.
“That’s reasonable doubt,” said Spencer — a phrase he repeated to jurors several times when ticking off inconsistencies in the case.
Testimony in the trial has lasted for four weeks. To render a guilty verdict, the jury must be unanimous in its decision. If convicted, Martin MacNeill, 57, could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Typically stoic in his expression and reaction, Martin MacNeill on Friday appeared pensive. Eyes down, he frequently sat with fingers laced together and his folded hands resting on his chest, propping up his chin. At times, he took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead.
Alexis Somers and Rachel MacNeill, who both testified against their father and pushed for his prosecution, were also in court, along with their mother’s sisters. Rachel MacNeill began to cry almost as soon as Judge Derek P. Pullan began to instruct the jury about how the law dictates they must consider the evidence presented in the case.
Prosecutors contend the motive for Martin MacNeill’s alleged crime was his 18-month relationship with nursing student Willis, whom he hired as nanny to his young children within weeks of his wife’s death.
Grunander said a shift in that relationship about a month before the death marks a critical moment in Martin MacNeill’s life and points to his motive for murder. That’s when Willis rejected a potential suitor in an email, telling him that a friendship had turned into more and she was now committed to someone.
“Martin’s secret life with Gypsy Willis was beginning to intersect with Michele,” Grunander said. “He was going to have to make a choice.”
Within weeks, Michele MacNeill was dead.
Martin MacNeill exhibited a host of weird behaviors and made a string of odd statements that when combined show he was acting to cover up his wife’s murder, Grunander said.
He forced his wife’s facelift, but raged before neighbors and emergency personnel after her death that she didn’t need it. He offered a doctor $10,000 to keep resuscitating the already dead woman, instructed his son to flush her medications down the toilet, insisted on an autopsy and worried out loud about whether the police might investigate.
But among the most damning pieces of evidence in the prosecution's view is the falsified military identification application that Martin MacNeill sought for Willis — a document that also got both of them prosecuted federally for identity theft. The document, Grunander noted, heartlessly listed April 14, 2007, the date of Michele MacNeill's funeral, as the new couple's fake wedding date.
“That is nothing short of an admission of guilt. That screams to you about what happened on April 11, 2007,” Grunander said. “The defendant may have well as had said in his application: ‘I murdered Michele.’”
Spencer contends Martin MacNeill was living an “alternative lifestyle,” maintaining the appearance of a perfect family life while keeping Willis on the side. But however odd and eccentric his behavior or personality may be, Martin MacNeill is not a killer and the circumstances of the case don’t add up to murder, Spencer countered in his 90-minute closing argument.
As proof, Spencer hung much of his closing on conflicting medical testimony, lab results that he said show the drugs in Michele MacNeill’s system were not at significant levels and statements from Martin MacNeill's daughters that have changed over time.
Similarly, jurors can’t really rely on testimony from five inmates who had something to gain by serving as snitches for authorities, he said. And if Martin MacNeill were trying to hide a crime, Spencer wondered out loud: Why tell a fellow inmate?
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Spencer argued that the most salient piece of evidence in the case is the frantic 911 call Martin MacNeill made to get help for his wife.
"He was hysterical. He was seeking help. He wanted the 911 operator to send an ambulance,” Spencer said.
Grunander acknowledged that much of the case is built on a “mountain of circumstantial evidence,” but he reminded jurors that they also had heard direct evidence from prison inmates who testified that Martin MacNeill told them he had killed his wife by drugging her, getting her into the tub and “holding her head under water to help her out.”
“There is more than enough evidence to convict,” Grunander said. "He is guilty of murder and obstruction of justice. … It’s been almost seven years since Michele’s death. It is time for the truth to come out.”