Ala. judge limits public access in high-profile murder case

Clara Hogan | Secret Courts | Feature | June 9, 2011

A state trial court judge in Alabama has sealed court records in the high-profile capital murder case of Amy Bishop, a former University of Alabama in Huntsville biology professor charged with killing three university colleagues. The judge is also considering a motion to bar the public from pretrial court proceedings.

The Madison County Circuit Clerk's Office refused to comment on the case and would not even confirm the records are sealed, citing an ongoing gag order. However, The Huntsville Times reported that Madison County Circuit Judge Alan Mann approved sealing the Bishop file.

"The defense filed a motion to seal the records from the general public, and the judge granted that motion," Bishop's attorney, Roy Miller, told the newspaper. "There are at least 77 motions that have been filed, of all kinds and nature, and we wanted to prevent a general perusal through the motions."

The seal means any information about the case is essentially secret from the media and public. The Times reported that it strongly opposes the move and is having its lawyer contact the court. Television station WHNT reported that it, along with The Huntsville Times, is "considering legal options that would re-open access to the closed records.”

"We believe criminal trials should be conducted in public," Editor Kevin Wendt said in a Huntsville Times article. "This was one of the most public, tragic crimes in Huntsville's history, and these proceedings should be conducted openly."

Wendt could not be reached for further comment.

Prosecuting attorneys have said they plan to seek the death penalty for Bishop, who is accused of killing three fellow biology faculty members during a Feb. 12, 2010, meeting. She also faces attempted murder charges for shooting three other University of Alabama-Huntsville employees. Bishop’s attorneys have said they plan to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, the Times reported.

Mann also issued a gag order in March to both parties in the trial. He is considering a request to ban the public from attending pretrial court proceedings, though he has not yet made a decision on that motion.

Jim Pewitt, a partner in the law firm of Johnston Barton Proctor & Rose LLP in Alabama, said it is unusual for a judge to seal all court documents and even more so to ban the public from pretrial activities.

"There are classic reasons why the public should have access to a criminal trial," he said. "It's the public's business, it's the public's courtroom, and the public's presence has been thought to ensure fairness."

The defense's apparent reasoning that the orders will help avoid further contamination of the juror pool is also flawed, Pewitt said.

"There are many other ways the court can make sure it gets a good and impartial jury in the box short of closing the court room," he said.