By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the unusual murder trial of an Alabama man suspected of killing his new wife during an Australian honeymoon scuba diving trip in order to get insurance money.
Prosecutors accuse Gabe Watson of drowning his 26-year-old wife Tina in 2003 by turning off her oxygen supply, but defense attorneys say the woman's death was a tragic accident resulting from panic, fatigue and heavy currents in the Great Barrier Reef.
Jury selection got underway in Birmingham on Monday. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Gabe Watson, 34, initially was charged with murder in Australia, but he pleaded guilty to a lesser manslaughter charge and served 18 months in prison.
A grand jury in Alabama also indicted Watson on two counts of capital murder, with prosecutors arguing he planned his new bride's death while still in the state.
A judge granted a defense motion on Monday to have one of the murder counts dropped. Gabe Watson has remarried and arrived at the courthouse with his current wife.
Before Australian authorities would release Watson to the United States, Alabama had to agree to waive the death penalty as a possible punishment, prosecutors said.
Australian authorities performed exhaustive tests to try to recreate Tina Watson's death, which occurred 11 days after the couple's wedding.
Gabe Watson has said his wife looked concerned seven minutes into their dive and knocked his mask off in panic, according to the coroner's report. By the time he retrieved the mask, he said Tina was sinking too fast for him to catch her.
Her body was found near the shipwrecked Yongala near the port of Townsville in the state of Queensland.
The coroner's report said Tina Watson was an inexperienced diver, and Gabe Watson had earned rescue certification.
The trial in Alabama poses some logistical challenges. As many as a dozen witnesses will be flown in from Australia to testify, prosecutors said.
Queensland coroner David Glasgow said in his report a modest insurance policy could have provided a motive. Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, claims Watson asked to be named a beneficiary before the wedding and requested an upgrade to the maximum amount, according to the coroner's report.
Prosecutor Don Valeska told Reuters that a potential $220,000 in insurance money was at stake from a life insurance policy and travel insurance.
The defense disputes that Gabe Watson was due to receive any money.
"What insurance? There was no insurance that Gabe was going to get," said Watson defense attorney Brett Bloomston. "I am anxious to hear what they come up with as a reason."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Daniel Trotta and Greg McCune)