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MacNeill found guilty in slaying of wife

Published November 9, 2013 2:46 pm

Courts • Jury deliberates for 11 hours before returning verdict in case involving Pleasant Grove doctor.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • It took a jury 11 hours to return a guilty verdict on Friday for Martin MacNeill, accused of killing his wife at their Pleasant Grove home six years ago.

The decision from the five-man, three-woman jury came after 13 days of testimony over four weeks, where prosecutors tried to build their case alleging MacNeill gave his wife, 50-year-old Michele MacNeill, a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs, then drowned her in a bathtub in their Pleasant Grove home. The motive, they argued, was to continue an affair with 37-year-old Gypsy Jyll Willis.

As the guilty verdict was read at 1:10 a.m. Saturday, Michele MacNeill's supporters — including her sisters, her friends and two of her daughters — gasped loudly as the verdict was announced, and immediately began sobbing and hugging. Martin MacNeill showed little to no emotion.

"We're just so happy he can't hurt anyone else," daughter Alexis Somers tearfully told a crowd of media after the verdict was read. "...There is justice for my mom today."

Martin MacNeill, 57, was found guilty of murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. He faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced on Jan. 7.

Deputy Utah County Attorney Chad Grunander told members of the media at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday that Martin MacNeill's case was the most difficult he had ever prosecuted.

"We are absolutely thrilled," Grunander said of the verdict. "It was an amazing moment to meet with the family... I love it when the system works and it worked these last four weeks."

Martin MacNeill's defense attorney, Randy Spencer, declined to speak with the media after the verdict, but said, "Of course, I'm disappointed."

Grunander said during closing arguments Friday morning that the drugs given to Michele MacNeill after she underwent plastic surgery was her husband's cover to hide an "almost" perfect murder.

"Along the way, he left a number of clues that all point to him as a murderer," he told the jury.

For prosecutors, Grunander said the most damning piece of evidence was a government identification application that Martin MacNeill, 57, submitted for Willis, who represented herself in the application as his wife, Jillian MacNeill. On the line asking for their wedding date, Martin MacNeill inked April 14, 2007 — the day of Michele MacNeill's funeral.

"That is not short of an admission of guilt," Grunander told the jury during closing arguments. "He might as well have said in that application, 'I murdered Michele.' "

Reasonable doubt • But Spencer countered that there was no evidence presented by the state "that rises to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt." He accused prosecutors of "cherry-picking" facts that support their theory that Martin MacNeill killed his wife in order to welcome Willis into his life.

Spencer pointed to wording in the Utah medical examiner's report indicating that drug toxicity "could potentially" or "may have had an effect" on the woman's death.

That equals reasonable doubt, Spencer argued.

"I feel like I could sit down right now, because the medical testimony is so clear," Spencer said about 20 minutes into his 90-minute closing argument.

Spencer says there was no evidence that anyone but Michele MacNeill, herself, gave her any medications on the morning she died, April 11, 2007.

"Even if [Martin MacNeill] did, the medications were low," Spencer said, adding the drug levels found in the woman's system were at therapeutic levels. "They were very, very low."

Michele MacNeill was found unconscious in her bathtub by her 6-year-old daughter, Ada MacNeill. The child was sent by her father to a neighbor's house to get help, and eventually Michele MacNeill was pulled from the bathtub by a neighbor and Martin MacNeill. The two attempted CPR before medical crews arrived.

Those medical crews also attempted to perform CPR and other life-saving efforts before Michele MacNeill was taken to American Fork Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

During the trial, the jury heard from a number of witnesses, including Willis, several of Martin MacNeill's daughters — who believe he killed their mother — and two inmates who claimed the defendant confessed the alleged murder to them.

Prosecutors weaved a narrative that focused on Martin MacNeill's bad or odd behavior — including the growing seriousness of his affair with Willis, his insistence that Michele MacNeill have a face-lift, asking that extra medications be prescribed for the woman and his reaction to his wife's death — all added up to murder.

"There is a mountain of circumstantial evidence here, ladies and gentleman," Grunander told the jury Friday.

Autopsy • However, the state Medical Examiner's Office has never ruled the woman's death a homicide, a fact that Spencer said showed reasonable doubt that Michele MacNeill was murdered.

After an autopsy in 2007, Michele MacNeill's manner of death was ruled "natural," the result of "chronic hypertension and myocarditis, which are capable of causing acute unexpected arrhythmia and sudden death."

But investigators say Martin MacNeill called the medical examiner multiple times and gave misleading information. In 2010, in a new investigative report, Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey changed the cause of death to the combined effects of heart disease and drug toxicity. The manner of death was changed to "undetermined."

Martin MacNeill's attorneys argued at trial that the man had an alibi at the time Michele MacNeill died because he was at work at the Utah State Developmental Center. However, prosecutors pointed out in their closing arguments that there is a window of time — between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. on the day of Michele MacNeill's death — where Martin MacNeill's whereabouts are unknown.

Despite the defense's attempt to establish an alibi, Grunander said that Martin MacNeill had plenty of time to leave work and "take care of business" at home.

"Give Michele the drugs, fix her up a bath, get her in the tub, hold her head down a little while. Help her out," Grunander said, paraphrasing the testimony of an inmate who claims Martin MacNeill confessed the killing to him.

The defense called only four witnesses, including a former co-worker of Martin MacNeill and his child's kindergarten teacher, to back his alibi theory that he was at work at the time of Michele MacNeill's death and could not have killed her.

Defense attorneys also brought in an ergonomics expert, who told the jury it would have been difficult for Martin MacNeill to have lifted his wife from the bathtub by himself.

Martin MacNeill did not take the witness stand in his own defense.