02.16.10

Did She Murder Before?

Why was the suspect in the Alabama murder rampage not charged when she shot her brother dead, or when a bomb arrived at a colleague's home? Wendy Murphy investigates the hidden clues in the shadowy police reports.

After University of Alabama professor Amy Bishop allegedly gunned down three faculty members last Friday, and injured several more, reportedly because she was upset about being denied tenure, the first reaction from many people was that the nerdy Harvard-trained neuroscientist and married suburban mother of four didn't seem "the type."

Anyone in Massachusetts familiar the situation behind the 1986 shooting death of her brother—and the 1993 attempted bombing of a Harvard colleague—would beg to differ, even though neither resulted in criminal charges. I looked back at the records and prior reports—the loose ends are puzzling. And disturbing.

Reports from 1986 say the weapon was a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, which is not an automatic weapon and would have been impossible to shoot “accidentally.”

The shooting of her 18-year-old brother in Braintree was ruled "accidental" by then-District Attorney, now Congressman, Bill Delahunt, after the State Police Crime Prevention and Control (CPAC) Unit assigned to Delahunt's office wrote a report characterizing the incident as the mistaken act of a teenage girl trying to unload a weapon. Another report from the local Braintree police officer who responded to the scene went missing in 1988. The current chief of police there says it's odd for a police report in such a serious case to disappear.

Some questions: Why didn't police do anything back then—or anytime since then—to find out what happened to the file? It's also odd that police know exactly when it went missing. And that the CPAC report doesn't even mention the existence of a local police report.

A typical homicide case in Massachusetts is investigated by both local police and CPAC, in conjunction with the District Attorney's Office. When the final CPAC report is submitted to the D.A. for a determination regarding prosecution, it is usually a comprehensive document that incorporates information from all other reports. In short—the district attorney gets everything from all investigative sources before a decision is made. But the CPAC report on Amy Bishop was missing a lot of information. Delahunt says he barely recalls the case, and is reportedly out of the country. The guy he put in charge of the case at the time, John Kivlan, told the Boston Globe that his assessment of the case as an "accidental" shooting was based on his review of "the police reports,” and that "there was nothing we knew of to contradict the finding of an accidental discharge".

Either way, the buck stops with the DA—the report he received from CPAC that ruled the case an "accident" was very suspicious. Here's why:

First, accuracy: The report says Amy was 19 at the time, but recent AP stories say Amy is currently 44, which would make her 21 at the time she shot her brother. Describing her as a teenager makes her sound more sympathetic and close in age to her 18 year-old brother-victim.

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Second, motive: The report mentions that Amy had a fight with her father—but police officers who responded to the scene have said she had a fight with her brother. The discrepancy matters because a fight with her brother means she might have had motive to kill him—which argues against the accident theory. The report is clear that some kind of fight preceded the shooting, but it nowhere mentions what the fight was about. No responsible law-enforcement official can opine that a shooting was "accidental" without explicitly addressing the issue of motive. If it was a fight about something serious, the likelihood that it was an accidental shooting decreases. To say nothing about motive is to suggest not only that it was a fight between Amy and her brother, but also that it wasn't a trivial disagreement.

Third, details: The report barely mentions that Amy shot three rounds out of the shotgun. The first was in her upstairs bedroom—before the killing. The second killed her brother—and the third one that followed was when Amy shot into the ceiling of her home before she walked out the door, shotgun in hand. The report makes no mention of the first and third shots other than to note that Amy had "no memory" of trying to repair the hole in her bedroom wall to cover the gunshot damage there—and that she had no memory of leaving her house with the gun in hand.

Despite the fact that, according to a February 13, 2010, press release from current Braintree Police Chief Paul Frazier, Amy pointed the weapon in a threatening manner at a passing motorist on a street near Amy's house, and a short time later, as described in a February 15, 2010, Boston Herald story, aimed the weapon at him while demanding a getaway car. The CPAC report states only that Amy recalls nothing of her behavior after the shooting until she found herself at the police station, ready to be booked on homicide charges.

According to Chief Frazier, the booking never took place. In his February 13 press release, he writes that after Amy Bishop was handcuffed and transported to the police station under arrest, she was in the process of being booked when the retired deputy chief, who was then a lieutenant and was responsible for booking Ms. Bishop, received a phone call he believes was from then Police Chief John Polio or possibly from a captain on Chief Polio’s behalf. He was instructed to stop the booking process. Ms. Bishop was then turned over to her mother and they left the building via a rear exit. Because she was never booked, no arrest record was created. Amy returned home with her mother who, at the time, was on the Braintree “personnel board,” a board that had authority to hire and fire municipal employees.

The CPAC report does note that Amy's mother, who reportedly witnessed the killing, claimed not to hear the first gunshot. She said her house had "soundproof" walls. The report makes no mention of the size of the weapon, or the fact that whatever the weapon's size, a gunshot noise would have been too loud to have been muzzled by the walls in Amy's suburban family home.

The report contains only a single forensic reference to the gun—noting that it was delivered to the State Police Crime Lab for ballistics testing. The results of that testing are not mentioned in or attached to the report, as they should have been, even though the size and style of the weapon would reveal whether it would have been mechanically difficult for Amy to "accidentally" shoot her brother. A young woman of Amy's size, with no training, probably would have found it difficult to pull any shotgun trigger by "accident."

Law-enforcement sources and news reports from 1986 say the weapon was a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, which is not an automatic weapon and would have been impossible to shoot "accidentally," especially after Amy had already fired the weapon once in her bedroom. It takes a lot of intentional effort to empty the shell from the first shot, then pump the weapon to get the ammunition loaded for another shot. The shooter has to push down a safety button with one hand, then simultaneously use the other hand to pull back a lever to release the old casings, and load new ammunition. One can hardly engage in such activity by accident, yet the CPAC report suggests that Amy came downstairs from her room only to ask for help "unloading" the weapon when it went off by "accident" and struck her brother in the chest.

The report is also silent about where the spent ammunition casings were found in the home and what damage was done to the bedroom wall and to the ceiling area where the other shots were fired.

Most curious: The CPAC investigator waited almost two weeks after the incident before interviewing the family, which allowed them time they could have used to plan their stories and make sure they weren't inconsistent with each other. The report suggests this was out of respect for the family's distress—but law-enforcement officials are trained not to wait before interviewing key witnesses because the most truthful statements are made closest to the time of the crime—and there's no "grieving family member" exception.

Overall, the report reads less like an objective assessment of a possible homicide, and more like a high-school debate paper from a student trying to argue in favor of the "accident theory." It cries out for the "other side" to speak—but because other files are missing, that voice has come only from the current police chief—who seems intent on pointing fingers at his predecessor.

Whatever the truth, Amy Bishop certainly lucked out in 1986—but she may have become emboldened rather than grateful, because seven years later she was the lead suspect in the 1993 attempted bombing of Harvard Professor Paul Rosenberg.

Dr. Rosenberg arrived home from a Caribbean vacation to find a suspicious package that had been delivered (though apparently not mailed) to his home. Amy Bishop lived only a short distance away—in the same town—and became a suspect because she'd had a disagreement with Dr. Rosenberg regarding her research at Harvard where she was a Ph.D. student.

Amy told a friend that federal law-enforcement officials asked whether she had ever removed stamps from items that had been mailed to her, and used them to send mail to others. She reportedly smirked at the time—and didn't tell her friend the answer to the question.

Proving who delivered a bomb to a private home is difficult—but Amy had motive and opportunity. She had a disagreement with Dr. Rosenberg, according to Sylvia Fluckiger, a lab technician at Harvard who worked with Bishop at the time and told the Associated Press recently that Bishop’s dispute with Rosenberg occurred shortly before the bombs were discovered, though she didn’t know the nature of the disagreement. “It was common knowledge,“ she said.

Because Amy worked with Dr. Rosenberg at Harvard—and because she lived only a couple of miles away—she would have known that he was on vacation and could have hand-delivered the bomb without being noticed. It's not enough evidence for a conviction, but it's not nothing. Her husband was questioned too— and though he recently claimed to have a letter from federal authorities clearing him and his wife, he hasn't released such a letter, yet.

In the early 1990s, Amy Bishop started a family—and she moved them all to Alabama in 2003 when she got a job at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. While there, she reportedly won mixed reviews and after several years, she came up for tenure but was recently denied.

The faculty members who voted against her were reportedly targeted and now family members of the dead and injured may be considering filing lawsuits against the university. Even if they don't sue, they have a right to know whether what happened was foreseeable. The more that comes out about Amy Bishop's violent past, the stronger the argument that University of Alabama officials should have known better than to hire such a dangerous woman.

Amy may be innocent of the ‘86 and ‘93 incidents, and maybe the worst that can be said is that she's a bit unstable. It doesn't really matter. The question is whether university officials reasonably knew or should have known that this was a woman who thought it appropriate to respond to interpersonal disagreements with violence.

Universities are filled with people who respectfully disagree about things. It's part of the learning process. They're also places where parents send their children to obtain an education in a healthy and safe environment. Amy Bishop had no business teaching at any university.

It's not that she shouldn't have been allowed to work somewhere. But given what we know now, she shouldn't have been allowed to work at a job where she had to interact with other human beings.

Wendy Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at New England Law/Boston. Wendy specializes in the representation of crime victims, women and children. Her expose of the American legal system, And Justice For Some, came out in 2007. A former NFL cheerleader and visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, Wendy lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.