Here is an update on a story that shook the country eight years ago. Remember the guy who allegedly drowned his new wife while scuba diving during their honeymoon in Australia? I've always thought the guy was guilty as sin and that he had already been put away. Due to budget cuts in the couple's home state of Alabama, the trial hasn't even started yet! Here is the story:
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Budget cuts are delaying the trial of an Alabama man charged with killing his wife during a honeymoon diving trip to Australia in 2003 in one of the most visible signs yet of how spending reductions are beginning to affect the state.
The problem? A judge says there won't be enough bailiffs and other officers to provide security at the Jefferson County Courthouse for the case, which is being watched around the globe. At least 65 court workers are being laid off because of money shortages.
Gabe Watson is accused of killing his wife, Tina Thomas Watson, during a honeymoon trip to Australia just days after they were married in October, 2003. Tina Watson died while the couple was scuba diving over a century-old shipwreck on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said delaying such a trial shows the dire financial circumstances facing Alabama courts.
"High-profile cases are financially taxing on the court system. You have to request a higher number of potential jurors and more security," Cobb said in an interview Friday.
She said it will be a struggle for Alabama's courts to keep their doors open for any trials if more money is not made available. Cobb said the situation could improve if the Legislature passes a pending bill that would allow state agencies to furlough employees without pay for short periods of time. She said that bill would save as many as 177 jobs and allow for more trials.
"Something has to get done. We can't have a civilized society without the court system," Cobb said.
Gabe Watson served 18 months in an Australian jail after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of Tina Watson. Alabama authorities charged him with capital murder, claiming he drowned her, while defense attorneys argue Tina Watson's death was an accident.
Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, said he understood the reason for the postponement.
"But they are obviously delaying justice if they are delaying the trial," Thomas said.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tommy Nail indefinitely delayed the trial during a meeting with lawyers Thursday. Originally set to start May 23, it could be rescheduled for late summer or early autumn if the Legislature makes more money available to courts.
Deputy Attorney General Don Valeska, who is leading the prosecution, said he was disappointed with the delay but understood the judge had no choice. He said he hoped the Legislature will provide more funds to the courts.
"We're going to have to find a way to fund the courts," Valeska said. He said he has informed witnesses in Australia that the start of the trial has been delayed.
"Most of them emailed us back and said they would be available when the trial is rescheduled, just to give them 30 days' notice," Valeska said. Despite the financial crunch facing the courts, Valeska said the attorney general's office has funds set aside to bring witnesses from Australia to Alabama for the trial.
Defense attorney Brett Bloomston did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment concerning the delay.
The presiding circuit judge in Jefferson County, Scott Vowell, said there will only be three bailiffs available for the eight judges who try criminal cases once the layoffs hit on May 1. He said it would take more than three bailiffs just to provide security for the Watson trial.
"We're in a very serious situation. We're going to do everything we can," Vowell said.
He said some emergency measures being considered include using volunteer auxiliary deputies to help provide security in some courtrooms and rearranging dockets.
To help the funding crunch, Cobb hopes the Legislature will pass a bill to raise the state tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack. It's currently 42.5 cents.
The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said the bill was written for revenue to go to cancer research, public health and Medicaid, but she is willing to consider an amendment to direct some money to courts.