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SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys appealing the conviction of a Pleasant Grove doctor found guilty of murdering his wife say the circumstantial case hinged on false testimony from a prison informant.
Martin MacNeill, 60, is serving up to life in prison after a jury found him guilty almost three years ago of killing his wife, 50-year-old Michele MacNeill, in 2007. According to investigators, MacNeill pressured his wife into getting a face-lift, then drugged her and drowned her in a bathtub in an attempt to make the death look accidental.
The story of the wealthy doctor, his beauty queen wife's tragic death and his mistress who moved in days later became a true crime sensation.
MacNeill began efforts to appeal the conviction within days of the trial ending in November 2013. Arguing before the Utah Court of Appeals on Tuesday, MacNeill's attorney, Kent Morgan, said the case lacked convincing evidence, but was built "solely" on the testimony of some of MacNeill's fellow jail inmates who testified the doctor had confessed to them how he murdered his wife.
"This is a case where a jury convicted my client of murder without a finding or cause of death," Morgan said. "The jury convicted (MacNeill) of murder solely on the testimony of an informant."
In exchange for testimony, those inmates had a chance to get letters of recommendation from the prosecution team, including in support for shorter sentences in exchange for their cooperation. Morgan said Tuesday that a complete understanding of what that deal looked like — an investigator promised one inmate that the strength of his recommendation would depend on the quality of his testimony — could have impacted the jury's decision.
"You have people who are in prison who are creating a linchpin in a case which is so thinly circumstantial," Morgan told the panel of judges.
"When you don't follow the rules, then that's not justice," Morgan said following the hearing, calling for a new trial.
Assistant Utah attorney general Tera Peterson countered Tuesday that prosecutors disclosed they were willing to write letters on the inmates' behalf about their cooperation with the trial, if they requested.
While the inmate initially said on the witness stand that he hadn't received any promises for his testimony, a "devastating" cross-examination revealed the man wouldn't testify without a good deal, she said.
Questioning Peterson about whether failing to take action over the prosecutorial misstep would establish a bad standard, presiding Judge Frederic Voros called it "offensive" that the prosecution team did not stop the inmate's misleading testimony.
"A member of the prosecution team sat and listened to that, knew it was false, and did nothing about it," Voros said.
Peterson said Tuesday that the jury's decision was not determined by a single witness, but by the collective evidence presented through approximately 45 different witnesses about MacNeill's know-how, method and motive for the killing.
"There was a mountain of evidence that showed Dr. MacNeill was guilty," Peterson said.
Between wife Michele and mistress Gypsy Willis, "he chose Gypsy," she said.
Morgan emphasized Tuesday that while MacNeill's affair was shameful, "committing adultery is not murder."
Daughter Alexis Somers said following the hearing Tuesday that she has no doubt her father murdered her mother.
"There were 45 witnesses brought forth by the state, there were mountains of evidence against my father, there is no question in my mind and no question to those jurors," Somers said.
Somers went on to say that the contested testimony from MacNeill's fellow inmates didn't impact the trial's outcome.
"When speaking with those jurors, they actually said to me and my family that they didn't even weigh the testimony of the prisoners at all because they were prisoners, but based on all of the other mountains of evidence, found my father guilty," she said.
Following the murder trial, MacNeill was found guilty in a separate case in July 2014 of sexually abusing one of his daughters shortly after his wife's death. MacNeill appealed that conviction as well, and the court of appeals upheld the jury's decision last month.