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Judge rejects Martin MacNeill's request for new murder trial

Published August 30, 2014 2:39 pm

Courts • Ruling concludes "false testimony" did not affect the verdict.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A 4th District judge on Friday rejected a request for a new trial by Martin MacNeill, who was convicted last year of murdering his wife in 2007.

Judge Derek Pullan has been mulling the new trial request since January, when MacNeill's attorney, Randall Spencer filed a motion claiming a federal inmate lied on the stand about a possible early release he received in exchange for his testimony and that prosecutors did not disclose that a deal was in the works.

"The question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony affected the trial," Pullan's 40-page ruling reads. "The Court holds no."

Pullan has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday afternoon to set a sentencing date for MacNeill.

"We're obviously very disappointed in the decision," said defense attorney Randall Spencer.

During the trial, prosecutors "elicited false testimony" from two of three federal inmates about whether they were receiving any benefits for their testimony, Pullan wrote. They said that they weren't, and a member of the prosecution who knew this wasn't the case did nothing to correct it, the judge adds.

However, the testimony of one of the inmates in question was favorable to MacNeill; and even if the other inmate had disclosed a request for a recommendation letter for early release, Pullan decided that it likely would not have had any effect on the trial's outcome.

"Jurors understood that the interests of [the two inmates] in the case were different than any ordinary witness, and that both had motive to testify falsely," Pullan wrote. "Armed with this instruction, the jury surely looked on the jailhouse informant testimony with a cautious and critical eye."

Prosecutors have chalked up defense claims of a "secret deal" to a "conspiracy theory," and said no such deal had been planned.

The inmate testified during MacNeill's four-week trial in November that the defendant confessed to him that he drugged his wife — 50-year-old Michele MacNeill — then drowned her in a bathtub at their Pleasant Grove home April 11, 2007.

The defense also questioned whether the inmate gleaned facts about the crime from watching television.

On Oct. 18, 2013, the judge granted both side's request that all of the "fact witnesses" not watch or listen to television, radio, or Internet news coverage of the trial while under subpoena. Such a mandate is called an "exclusion order."

But for reasons that remain unexplained, prosecutors waited a week before telling the federal inmates about the exclusion order.

Jury selection began Oct. 15, and prosecutors began presenting evidence in the trial on Oct. 17.

The inmates didn't hear about it until the day after they arrived in the Utah County Jail, according to Pullan's ruling.

"Telephone conversations clearly indicate that [one of the inmates] — contrary to his trial testimony — was watching television coverage of the trial," Pullan's ruling reads.

The prosecutors should have informed the inmates sooner about the exclusion order, especially since "jailhouse informant knowledge" is so important to reliability, according the judge's ruling. But, Pullan added, he was not persuaded that the prosecution's delay prejudiced MacNeill.

"The lion's share of [the inmate's] testimony was consistent with what he told [an investigator] prior to trial," Pullan wrote. The only meaningful difference in the inmate's testimony was referring to a drug MacNeill used on his wife as "Oxy," and when asked if he meant Oxycontin, the inmate replied that "Oxycontin and Oxycodone are the same thing," Pullan adds.

Prosecutors said MacNeill killed his wife so he could continue an affair with another woman, Gypsy Willis.

On Nov. 8, the jury convicted MacNeill, 58, of first-degree felony murder and second-degree felony obstruction of justice.

Sentencing in Martin MacNeill's sexual abuse conviction also has been delayed due to a defense motion.

Spencer filed a motion to dismiss the sexual abuse case against the former doctor, arguing that he was unable to effectively cross-examine victim Alexis Somers because police inadvertently lost her recorded police interview from 2007.

The sexual abuse occurred May 23, 2007, about five weeks after the death of MacNeill's wife.

Somers testified at trial that after she woke at the home to find Martin MacNeill rubbing her buttocks, and licking and kissing one of her hands, the man said: "Oh, oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I thought you were your mother."

Before the July trial, Spencer filed a similar motion to dismiss, asking for the case to be tossed because of loss of evidence. But Judge Samuel McVey denied the motion, saying that while there was some negligence in deleting Somers' interview, it was not "gross negligence" and it was not done in "bad faith."

Spencer argued in the motion that without the recorded interview, MacNeill was denied the opportunity to cross-examine Somers about inconsistent statements "with her own words" rather than the words in the detective's case file.

"The Utah County Attorney's Office, whether intentional or negligent, seems to have made an extraordinary number of errors in its zeal to prosecute MacNeill that has deprived him of fundamental fairness and due process," Spencer wrote in the motion, adding that he believed prosecutors in the murder case also "failed to disclose a significant amount of critical evidence."

mcfall@sltrib.com