Legal experts say that a new inquiry into the 30-year-old death of actress Natalie Wood is highly unlikely to lead to charges against the late actress’ husband, Robert Wagner, or anyone else.
“Based on what we’ve heard so far, the chances [of the investigation leading to criminal charges] are zero to nothing,” Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, told TheWrap.
“I would classify this as silliness — not the drowning, which was tragic, but the idea that 30 years later a witness comes forward and tells what he calls the real story and that leads to criminal charges. As a prosecutor, you just roll your eyes.”
Indeed, leading criminal lawyers told TheWrap that the only crime that would circumvent the statute of limitations would be murder. And that would require the emergence of multiple witnesses and compelling physical evidence.
“Unless there’s something earth-shattering – some DNA evidence on a body that’s probably badly decomposed – they don’t have a case,” Steve Meister, a Los Angeles defense attorney and former prosecutor, told TheWrap.
Furthermore, the man who helped prompt the new inquiry, boat captain Dennis Davern, is compromised as a trial witness, the experts agreed. Davern admitted he lied to police in years past, has a book out on the "West Side Story" star's death and says he was drunk on the night in question.
“You’ll need a lot more than the captain’s testimony to make a case,” Jerod Gunsberg, a Los Angeles-based criminal attorney, told TheWrap. “It would not take much to discredit him on the stand.”
Though the book in question, “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” was published in 2009, Davern has made frequent references to it in interviews, and his co-author, Marti Rulli, has been a constant presence on television and in print.
It was not by accident that Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Wagner, floated the idea that such a witness to an alleged crime might be trying to profit from the investigation being re-opened.
In a statement, Nierob said “[The Wagner family] fully support the efforts of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and trusts they will 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.”
Rick Kramer, a spokesman for Davern, told TheWrap that the captain did not come forward to make a buck off the case. He said Davern has no plans to sell his story to the media and points out that the book is out of print and only available in electronic form.
"Dennis has been hoping for an investigation for decades, and he will do anything that he can to be of service," Kramer said. "As for his credibility, that's not his concern. That's up to the prosecutors and the detectives."
"Nobody would put themselves through this kind of public scrutiny for a book that is several years old and out of print," he added.
Not that Davern faces any legal penalties for changing his story. Lawyers tell TheWrap that lying to investigators is not perjury, it is merely a misdemeanor carrying with it up to a year in prison, and the statute on those offenses expired decades ago.
Police say that the other two witnesses to what happened on the actress’ boat, The Splendour, during an allegedly booze-filled Thanksgiving weekend three decades ago, Wagner and their guest, actor Christopher Walken, are not suspects in the case. At least they aren't suspects for now.
Moreover, neither man has yet to offer substantially different accounts of what happened the night Wood died in the chilly waters off the coast of Catalina Island, although Wagner did subsequently admit in his 2008 autobiography, “Pieces of My Heart,” that there was an argument leading to a smashed wine bottle on the night his wife went missing, something he did not initially share.
The legal opinions underscore a question many have posed since the L.A. Sheriff’s department re-opened the investigation into the 1981 death last week: Why the new inquiry? And why now?
In a front-page story this weekend, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It is unclear what compelling evidence — if any — prompted the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to reopen the case, and what accounts for the peculiar timing.”
A sheriff’s department spokesman said media interest led to multiple new witnesses coming forward with information.
But others say the entire enterprise smacks of a publicity stunt for CBS and Vanity Fair, and a welcome distraction for a sheriff’s department dogged by allegations of deputy misconduct inside the Los Angeles County Jail System.
The department has been smarting from a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry that turned up instances of sheriff’s deputies using excessive force with inmates and accepting bribes from prisoners to smuggle in cell phones. Talking about Natalie Wood allows the department to turn attention away from the scandal.
“It’s a very good time to have a distraction,” Gunsberg said. “The department has been getting hammered in the press. I’m not saying there’s a correlation, but the timing is interesting.”
Lt. John Corina, a spokesman for the department, strongly refuted any allegations that the investigation was a stunt.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Corina told TheWrap. “We’re just going through the case again because new information has come forward. Really, it’s our obligation. It has nothing to do with what’s going on in our custody facilities. We wouldn’t do something like that.”
Attorneys agree that the sheriff’s department may have been right to make fresh inquiries, given Davern’s recantation.
There is a chance that simply by re-launching the investigation, fresh evidence of foul play or at least some explanation of the circumstances surrounding Wood’s mysterious drowning might emerge.
“Evidence does change — its not static,” Ronald Richards, a Beverly Hills criminal defense attorney, told TheWrap. “It could be something was said during the new investigation that was not what the police were originally told, or there could be computer models or DNA evidence that were not available at the time that could provide more proof of what happened.”
Indeed, police have said that multiple individuals have come forward with information. One, Marilyn Wayne, who was moored near the Splendour on the night of Woods' death, says she heard a woman crying for help, saying she was drowning.
A slurred man’s voice replied, “Oh, hang on, we’re coming to get you,” Wayne said in a statement, accompanying the public petition to reopen the case.
That’s certainly compelling. However, Richards said that the more time that passes between a crime and an investigation, the better it generally is for a suspect.
Moreover, the claims that Davern has made in his book and recent media appearances do not necessarily point to murder.
He claims that Wagner is “responsible” for his wife’s death and that he was slow to notify authorities that Wood was missing and to turn on a searchlight to look for the actress. That, attorneys tell TheWrap, is more in line with a charge of involuntary manslaughter, not murder, and the statute on those charges ran out over two decades ago.
Davern has further adjusted the chronology of events that evening, saying that Wagner and Wood retreated to the rear of the boat after Walken retired for the evening and continued to have a heated argument.
Given that Davern claims he heard a loud thump, the possibility that their disagreement may have been physical has been raised.
That still may not be enough to prove a murder charge, though.
“You need evidence that someone hit her over the head or that she was flailing about in the water while [Wagner] yelled ‘drown, drown,” Levenson said. “You need better evidence to show that they didn’t make a better effort to save her when they should have. You don’t have the smoking gun.”
Even though Davern describes a vicious row, with Wagner smashing a wine bottle and accusing Walken of wanting to sleep with Wood, that does not necessarily mean that he killed his wife.
“The odds are still pretty good that this was an accident — that someone who couldn’t swim fell in the water and drowned,” Richards said.