In guilty verdict, MacNeill family finally finds justice
By Jessica Miller
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Nov 09 2013 02:55PM
Provo • After six years of pursuing justice for Michele MacNeill, her family members say they now can rest.
In the early hours Saturday, Martin MacNeill, 57, was found guilty of killing his wife of nearly 30 years. And now Michele MacNeill’s family, who relentlessly pushed investigators to look into the woman’s death, can sleep easier. They feel like justice has been served.
"We don’t have to worry about Martin," niece Jill Harper-Smith said after the verdict was read. "We were all scared of him. He was a danger."
He faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced on Jan. 7 — a far cry from the situation initially, when Michele MacNeill’s Aug. 11, 2007, death was not investigated as a homicide. An autopsy conducted in the days after she was found unconscious in a bathtub in her Pleasant Grove home ruled that the 50-year-old woman died of natural causes, the result of heart inflammation and high blood pressure.
But those closest to her — her daughters, her sisters and her niece — knew there was more to her death. They knew, they said, that Michele MacNeill’s doctor husband was involved.
In the week after Michele MacNeill died, her sister, Linda Cluff, went to Pleasant Grove police because she suspected foul play. But those officers were dismissive of her claims, especially after receiving the autopsy report that declared the woman’s death natural.
But family members didn’t give up. They continued seeking people who would listen to their allegation that Martin MacNeill killed his wife, sending letters, emails and information to the Utah County Attorney’s Office, pleading with them to look into the case. In January 2008 an investigation was opened, but it took over four years to put the pieces together and, in August 2012, Martin MacNeill was charged with first-degree felony murder and second-degree felony obstruction of justice.
Fifteen months later, a five-man, three-woman jury would decide after 11 hours of deliberation that Martin MacNeill did in fact kill his wife.
"We went from nobody listening to look where we are today," Cluff said after the 1:10 a.m. verdict was read Saturday.
The verdict came after 13 days of testimony over four weeks, when prosecutors tried to build their case alleging Martin MacNeill gave his wife a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs, then drowned her in the bathtub. The motive, they argued, was to continue an affair with 37-year-old Gypsy Jyll Willis.
Guilty • When the guilty verdict was read Saturday morning, Michele MacNeill’s supporters — including Cluff, Harper-Smith, and daughters Rachel MacNeill and Alexis Somers — gasped aloud as the verdict was announced, and immediately began sobbing and hugging. Martin MacNeill remained stoic, showing little to no emotion.
"We’re just so happy he can’t hurt anyone else," Somers said after the verdict was read. "There is justice for my mom today."
Martin MacNeill was found guilty of murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. Fourth District Judge Derek Pullan scheduled sentencing for Jan. 7.
Martin MacNeill’s defense attorney, Randy Spencer, declined to speak with the media after the verdict, other than saying, "Of course, I’m disappointed."
Deputy County Attorney Chad Grunander told reporters about 2:30 a.m. Saturday that Martin MacNeill’s case was the most difficult he had ever prosecuted, due, in part, to the fact that it was not initially investigated as a homicide.
"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."
Grunander described the case as a "tough battle," but said there was a lesson to be learned.
"Don’t give up," he said. "Prosecutors, do the right thing. Push for justice. Victims, push for justice. Just be courageous."
Grunander said during his closing arguments on Friday morning that the drugs given to Michele MacNeill after she underwent plastic surgery at her husband’s demand worked as Martin MacNeill’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," Grunanader told the jury.
During the trial, the jury heard from a number of witnesses, including the defendant’s lover, several of Martin MacNeill’s daughters — who believe he killed their mother — and two inmates who claimed MacNeill confessed the 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.
"I think the mountain of motive in this case was just too much," Grunander said outside of court Saturday morning. " [Jury members] were very convinced."
Reasonable doubt • Spencer contended in his closing argument that the state presented no evidence "that rises to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt." He accused prosecutors of "cherry-picking" facts that supported 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.
Spencer said 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 drugs 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. 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.
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."
Turning point • But investigators said 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 was a window of time — between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. on the day of the death — when Martin MacNeill’s whereabouts were 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 during closing arguments, paraphrasing the testimony of an inmate who claims MacNeill confessed to the killing.
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 MacNeill to have lifted his wife from the bathtub by himself.
Martin MacNeill did not take the witness stand in his own defense.