HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Finances are threatening to delay the trial of a university professor charged with killing three colleagues – the second time in a year that money issues have gotten in the way of a high-profile Alabama murder case.
Defense lawyers have asked a judge in Huntsville to postpone the trial of Amy Bishop, who is accused of the shooting outburst that also wounded three during a faculty meeting in 2010 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
The defense says the case, now set for trial March 19, should be pushed back indefinitely because the state is refusing to pay for psychiatric testing that's vital to Bishop's planned insanity defense.
Bishop already has been evaluated by a state expert, but the results have not been made public. Her lawyers want another round of tests conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to bolster their claims that psychiatric problems led to the mass shooting.
The stakes couldn't be higher for the defense since Bishop could face the death penalty in the shooting.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday turned down a defense request to block the trial and ruled Bishop's lawyers aren't due the money for testing, but the county judge has yet to rule on a separate motion seeking a delay.
If the defense request is granted, it would be the second time in a year that finances stalled a major case in the state. A judge in Birmingham cited budget shortfalls in delaying the trial of a man accused of drowning his wife during their Australian honeymoon eight years ago. Gabe Watson was acquitted last month.
A leader of a state organization for criminal defense lawyers said the financial issues in each case are different.
The judge postponed the Watson case because of a lack of funding in Jefferson County, which is fighting budget shortfalls and has filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. But the key issue in the Bishop case involves a dispute between the state comptroller, who issues payments on behalf of the state, and the judge presiding over the case, said Jeff Duffey, president-elect of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Madison County Circuit Judge Alan Mann in September approved a defense request for some $25,000 in state funding for mental testing on Bishop, whose defense is being funded by taxpayers because the judge declared her indigent. Bishop's lawyers requested the money under a new law that established a state office of indigent defense that operates through the state Finance Department, and Mann agreed.
But the Finance Department is refusing to provide the money, arguing that Bishop's defense isn't due such funding during pre-trial maneuvering because her lawyers were appointed before the new law took effect.
Duffey said the state comptroller, whose office also is part of the Finance Department, is gradually exercising more power over payment decisions made by judges.
"Although the state overall does have financial problems, the position taken by the comptroller in the Bishop case is not something new," Duffey said in an interview conducted by email. "In my opinion this is an executive branch encroachment upon the judicial branch."
The Finance Department argued in court documents that the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that indigent defendants like Bishop aren't due to receive money to fund defense experts before trial.
Defense lawyers declined comment on the payment dispute, citing a gag order issued previously by the judge. District Attorney Robert Broussard did not return a message seeking comment.
Authorities say Bishop, a Harvard-educated biology teacher and researcher originally from Massachusetts, opened fire during a faculty meeting two years ago because she was mad at the school's decision to deny her tenure. The department chairman and two other people were killed; three others were wounded, two seriously.
Aside from the Alabama slayings, Bishop is charged with murder in the shooting death of her brother in Massachusetts in 1986. Authorities originally ruled the shotgun slaying accidental, but they reopened the investigation and filed murder charges after the killings in Alabama.