Natalie Wood Death Investigation Likely Won't Result in Charges, Expert Says

USC law professor and criminal defense attorney Michael Brennan explains where the case stands now.
Columbia Pictures/Photofest
Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood's mysterious 1981 death is back in the spotlight, after an investigator told CBS' 48 Hours that her then-husband Robert Wagner is a person of interest and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Monday held a press conference regarding the case.

Wood's body was found in the water after disappearing off a yacht near the coast of Catalina, aboard which were Wagner, Christopher Walken and captain Dennis Davern. At the time, her death was ruled accidental. But in 2011, investigators reopened the case. Lt. John Corina of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's homicide bureau on Monday told reporters that after a 2011 press conference about the case, more than 100 people came forward claiming to have information. Tips continued to come in until a year and a half ago.

The Hollywood Reporter asked USC law professor and criminal defense attorney Michael Brennan why he thinks law enforcement is reviving public interest in the case and whether charges are likely. 

Natalie Wood died in 1981. What are the chances charges would be filed this long after the fact?

Obviously, there’s no statute of limitation on murder, but that’s the only charge they could bring at this point and I just don’t see it happening. The three people who were on the boat have been interviewed to death, and I just can’t see how any of them are going to say anything that would cause any prosecutor to file charges at this point.

So why would the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office hold a press conference about the case?

These days, press conferences get called for all kinds of reasons. It’s not up to the sheriff’s department if someone is prosecuted; it’s up to the district attorney’s office. Until and unless they get interested and actually file charges, it’s just a press conference.

They say Robert Wagner is now a person of interest. What’s the significance of that?

Investigators like to do that just because it says that they are trying to do something about an open case. They may not believe his story, but that in and of itself is not going to get them very far. They would have to have the testimony of one of the other two men on the boat who saw Robert Wagner do something that resulted in Natalie Wood’s death. Or get a confession, which they’re not going to get.

If the two other witnesses saw something other than what they said before in interviews, possibly there’s evidence to bring prosecution, but I don’t see that happening either. If a witness changed their story, the fact that for 40 years they said one thing and 40 years later they say something else undermines their credibility substantially.

So why the dog and pony show?

Who knows? It doesn’t make any sense to me, so I really can’t even speculate as to why they’re doing this. If they really had a case that they thought they could prosecute, rather than holding a press conference they would go to the DA’s office and ask them to prosecute. So why they’re holding press conferences and making Robert Wagner look bad again in some people’s eyes doesn’t make any sense.

Is it possible investigators are ready to give up?

If they determined in 2011 that they don’t believe it was an accidental death, then they shouldn't say we’ve decided to forget about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.