Natalie Wood case reopened: Could investigation lead to new charges?

L.A. police reopened the case concerning the death of Natalie Wood in 1981, but experts say convincing evidence is needed to bring new charges – and new allegations aren't enough.  

In this 1980 file photo, actor Robert Wagner appears with actress Natalie Wood. Los Angeles sheriff's homicide detectives are taking another look at Wood's 1981 drowning death based on new information, officials announced Thursday.

It appears highly unlikely that the reopened investigation into the death of Natalie Wood 30 years ago – announced Friday by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department – will lead to any new prosecution in the case, say legal analysts.

The case is being reopened because yacht captain Dennis Davern – one of only four people on board the boat with Ms. Wood the night she drowned – went on NBC’s Today Show this morning to say that he lied to investigators about the actress’s mysterious death 30 years ago. He alleged that Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, had something to do with her death, which had been classified as an accident.

"I made some terrible decisions and mistakes," Davern said in the interview with NBC News' David Gregory. "I did lie on a report several years ago. I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report.” 

Later in the day, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department called a press conference and asked all who might know anything or have additional evidence to please come forward. But based on Friday's two events, legal analysts caution against jumping to conclusions.

“The press conference raised more questions than it answered,” says Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern Law School in Los angeles. “I am very skeptical and advise others to be skeptical as well. I didn’t sense they had done any groundwork leading to this and in my opinion it was very premature.”

He and others say that cold cases solved in recent years are typically reopened because of DNA or other hard, forensic evidence – not a change in testimony.

“It’s too easy for attorneys to undermine the credibility of a witness that has changed his testimony after such a long time,” says Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Memory doesn’t typically get better over time, and it’s too easy to sabotage credibility by simply asking, ‘Why did you not come forward before?’ or ‘What is your motivation for coming forward now?’ ” 

Wood was found drowned near Santa Catalina Island off the southern California coast in 1981. That night, she was with Mr. Wagner and Christopher Walken, who all shared drinks onshore and then continued drinking aboard the boat, where Wagner and Mr. Walken began arguing. Wood went to bed during the argument, and when Wagner came down to say goodnight, she was gone, according to previous accounts.

Speculation was that she accidentally slipped and fell overboard. But Mr. Davern's new comments support speculation that Wood and Wagner were involved in a lover's quarrel about Walken before the accident.

"Was the fight between Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner what ultimately led to her death?" NBC host Mr. Gregory asked during the interview on Friday.

"Yes," Davern replied.

Some observers say it’s possible that Davern might indeed want to clear his conscience after so many years of carrying guilt.

“Often, many years after an incident, people are in different situations – find religion, are no longer frightened – and come ahead with new information,” says Tony Celano, CEO of Full Security Inc. and former a New York Police Department detective squad commander. “Time can make people more cooperative.”

But many legal analysts speculate that Davern’s motive in contradicting his own testimony could be that he was recently interviewed for a collaboration between Vanity Fair magazine and the television series “48 Hours Mystery,” which will run Saturday and commemorate the 30th anniversary of Wood's death. He might be seeking publicity for himself or for the book he co-authored, called “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” which was published in September 2009.

"There's essentially zero chance of a prosecution arising out of this, unless something very, very sensational arises, and I think there's essentially zero chance of that,” says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general, criminal appeals division for New Mexico.

He posits that that the sheriff's department might be proceeding cautiously to avoid being accused of a coverup in a high-profile case.

“Cops are used to tracking down bum information and leads that go nowhere, so it's really not a big deal for them, and it seems reasonable to process the information on the 'Why not?' principle,” says Mr. Jacobsen.

Such old cases usually are pursued by police and taken to court by prosecutors only after the painstaking, long-term efforts of a cold case squad – “not under this type of circumstance,” adds Elisabeth Cawthon, a historian at the University of Texas, Arlington, in an e-mail. “Is there a possibility that the case could be genuinely (as opposed to technically) re-opened and an indictment handed down? I would say only a minuscule chance, particularly given the strong opinions from Natalie Wood's family that her death was a genuine accident.”

At the news conference today, Lt. John Corina said that Wagner is not a suspect, without revealing why. Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob released a statement:

"Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the L.A. County Sheriff's department about this matter, they fully support the efforts of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. and trust 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."

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