Editor’s Note: Joey Jackson is a criminal defense attorney and a legal analyst for CNN and HLN. The views expressed here are solely his.
Robert Wagner, the actor and husband of the late actress Natalie Wood, has been dubbed a “person of interest” in her death. An investigator for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department made this claim in an interview on CBS’s “48 Hours,” as part of a special titled “Natalie Wood: Death and Dark Water.” In a press conference Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department outlined their suspicions about the facts and evidence, and asked the public for help. This is laudable, as they are still making efforts after almost 37 years to crack the case. However, there is no smoking gun.
I give a tremendous amount of credit to the show’s producers for trying to untangle the mystery surrounding Natalie Wood’s death. They put forth various facts and information that were both compelling and engaging that may well lead the viewer to conclude that Robert Wagner is responsible for Wood’s death. This includes an alleged domestic incident between Wagner and Wood prior to being on the boat and an alleged argument between them the night of her death. That said, we are no more certain about what actually happened to her than we were in 1981.
It should be noted that a “person of interest” designation is merely the tag ascribed to an individual who is under investigation by police, and is being looked at very closely. It falls short of officially being named a “suspect” or an actual “defendant”, who is the person being directly accused of committing the crime.
Was it a shocking, unfortunate, and tragic accident? Or was it something more sinister – like murder? That’s what investigators are endeavoring to determine some 37 years after the fact.
It was November 29, 1981, when the beautiful and talented actress, then 43, went missing from her family yacht, The Splendour, off California’s Santa Catalina Island. Her body was found a short time later floating only a mile away in the Pacific. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department issued a statement Thursday night that Wagner is now a “person of interest” because new witnesses have provided statements that “portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night.”
Rumors swirled at the time about how it happened, why it happened, and whether someone — other than Wood – might be responsible for her demise. The focus immediately turned to her husband, then-51-year-old actor Robert Wagner, with whom she was married twice. The first marriage, in 1957, lasted only five years — while their second marriage, which began in 1972, appeared solid and loving, at least until her untimely death.
An investigation ensued but was closed only two weeks later, when the coroner, Thomas T. Noguchi, found that Wood slipped and subsequently drowned.
At the time she went missing, there were only three other people on the yacht – her husband, Wagner; fellow actor Christopher Walken; and yacht captain Dennis Davern. All three were interviewed and told investigators what they knew. Though suspicion and speculation continued, there was no basis to conclude that Wood’s death was anything other than an accident.
Wagner initially gave his rendition of events to investigators when the incident occurred. He has denied any involvement in Wood’s death.
Fast forward 30 years to 2011.
When the case was reopened in 2011, Wagner’s publicist issued a statement saying that Wagner’s family trusted that the LA Sheriff’s Department would “evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”
To date, they have not arrested Wagner – though Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lt. John Corina told “48 Hours” that “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.” Investigators are also placing reliance on Davern, who admitted in 2011 in an interview on NBC’s “Today Show” that he lied during the initial investigation. His new story has been that there was a fight on the boat that somehow resulted in Wood’s death. When asked why he was coming forward after, at the time, 30 years, he said “I’ve been trying to tell information about this for many, many years, but there wasn’t really anyone listening until now.”
For those wondering how this case could potentially be prosecuted now, remember, there is no statute of limitations on murder – the state can pursue a case at any time. But no matter how many years later such a case may be presented, the evidentiary rules remain the same: First, it would be necessary to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is, speculation, innuendo, and shifting hypotheses just won’t do. Second, although the state never would have to prove motive, inquiring minds always want to know. A jury would wonder why a man who married a woman twice would want her dead. And if authorities haven’t been able to answer that question for nearly 40 years, it’s unlikely a compelling reason will magically surface now.
Third, juries like to hear credible evidence. And while Davern changed his story 30 years later, during the 2011 investigation to point to nefarious conduct, he would open himself up to a bevy of questions by skilled defense attorneys: “Were you lying then, or are you lying now?”
“And by the way, how many times have you been interviewed in the last 30-plus years? Do any of those stories match the one you’re deciding to reveal now?”
I can’t imagine that the former captain’s answers to these questions would be too persuasive. The other problem with the Captain’s story is that he sold information to tabloids and co-wrote a book about Wood’s death. But now, he claims he wants to clear his conscience. Nevertheless, his credibility issues would most certainly doom any potential prosecution against Wagner – no matter what the Los Angeles detectives might hope to the contrary.
The CBS special made for great TV, and the press conference appears to have certainly been held with the best of intentions. That said, the only thing clear to me is that the police are no further along in solving this case than they were in 1981. Back then, they closed it after just two weeks citing an accidental drowning as the cause of death. Without more, they should do likewise now.
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And as to Wagner, he’s simply not talking. There’s something called the Fifth Amendment that gives him the absolute right to remain silent – lest he incriminate himself. While investigators might not like it, and even deem it suspicious, no jury will ever be permitted to infer that his silence equates with guilt. In fact, a judge will specially instruct the jury not to do so. So while investigators may be upset, and the public may look at Wagner cross-eyed, his silence is the most appropriate legal course of action to take and can’t be used against him.
Here’s the most pertinent fact that I can direct a reader to remember: Hollywood theories and courtroom convictions are about as far apart as the conflicting stories Davern told investigators in 1981 and in 2011.
And so while any murder may be prosecuted at any time, I doubt the case of Natalie Wood’s death will see a courtroom anytime soon. And in the unlikely event that it does, reasonable doubt will rule the day.