Testimony Ends in Murder Trial on BVI Scuba Death

By: David McFadden - AP Writer
By: David McFadden - AP Writer

A Rhode Island man accused of killing his wife during a 1999 scuba diving trip may have depleted her inheritance and courted another woman, but the drowning was a tragic accident, his defense lawyer said in closing arguments.

Testimony ended Monday in the trial of former dive shop owner David Swain, who has been held in a hilltop prison for two years. Prosecutors allege Shelly Tyre's death on a diving excursion in this wealthy British Caribbean territory was a nearly perfect murder.

The judge planned to give a roughly three-hour summation Tuesday morning. The jury, which has four hours to deliver a verdict under British Virgin Islands rules, is expected to announce its decision by late afternoon.

Defense lawyer Hayden St. Clair-Douglas urged the jury of seven women and two men to discard any feelings of "dislike" they may have for the 53-year-old Swain, who sat expressionless and appeared gaunt. He faces life in prison if convicted.

"Mr. Swain is not charged with adultery ... the charge is not money squandering. The charge is murder," Douglas told the panel. He argued prosecutors failed to show Tyre was killed by Swain and instead relied on speculative theories to stir up emotions.

Prosecutors, who wrapped up their case last week, contended Swain killed his wife so he could pursue a romance with another woman, Rhode Island chiropractor Mary Basler, who Swain called his "soul mate." They said the couple's prenuptial agreement denied him money if they divorced.

"This man here, his wife is killed and all his dreams come true. His dreams of Mary and dreams of money like he'd never seen before," prosecutor Terrence Williams said in his closing statement Monday. "If Shelley and he were to divorce, he would get nothing ... If she dies, everything."

Experts for the prosecution testified they believed Swain wrestled his 46-year-old wife from behind, tore off her mask and shut off her air supply near a shipwreck at a depth of about 80 feet. She was found with air in her tank. Her mask was damaged, the mouthpiece of her snorkel was missing, and her fin was later found embedded in a sandbar.

Swain and Tyre dove together on the last day of their March 1999 vacation in Tortola. Swain surfaced about a half-hour later - without his wife, who was an experienced diver.

Christian Thwaites, who accompanied the couple on the trip, found Tyre floating on her back near the shipwreck. He brought her to the surface, where Swain, a former emergency medical technician, said he performed CPR for two to three minutes before concluding his wife was dead.

The drowning was initially ruled an accident. But authorities in the British Virgin Islands charged Swain with murder after a 2006 civil trial in Rhode Island found him responsible for his wife's death. That jury awarded Tyre's family $3.5 million but Swain filed for bankruptcy and has not paid the sum. He was extradited here the following year and jailed.

The murder trial in the British Virgin Islands, where violence is rare, has been similar to the Rhode Island civil trial, with experts offering largely circumstantial evidence of what occurred.

On Monday, Williams, the prosecutor, read excerpts from Tyre's dive journal in which she said she had fun dealing with several "stressful situations" underwater. The prosecutor's humorous style in court had several jurors recurrently shielding sustained giggles.

Tyre described panic during one descent, but later marveled at spotting an octopus and other sizable reef creatures, Williams told jurors. She also described her excitement at stroking a gliding manta ray with an 8-foot wing span and swimming near reef sharks, including one that darted close to her mask.

Defense witness Glen Egstrom, a retired kinesiology professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, earlier testified that Tyre had a history of panicking underwater from situations such as handling her weight belt.

Egstrom, who has led diving safety research projects, testified Monday that Tyre may have lodged her fin in the sand herself and said it did not show a violent struggle.

But under cross-examination, Egstrom said, "I can't rule out murder." He also said Swain's reports to authorities after the dive were "inconsistent" at times.

Swain, who maintains his innocence, acknowledged during the Tortola trial that he spent part of Tyre's inheritance to court Basler, including taking a cruise with her. A forensic accountant estimated the inheritance was worth $630,000.

Swain denied he sought an intimate relationship with Basler before his wife's death, although he acknowledged kissing her one evening. The couple dated after Tyre's death, but Basler testified she ended the relationship in late 2000.

Swain's two children attended the trial since it began and said they have never doubted their father's innocence.

"The way I see it, we're never going to know what happened," said son Jeremy Swain, who lives in the Mariana Islands.

Tyre's elderly parents also attended, embracing their Rhode Island lawyer, J. Renn Olenn, who specializes in aquatic deaths. Swain's earlier descriptions of his brief rescue efforts had elicited loud sobs from Tyre's mother.


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