By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Three major loose strands in Bishop case

Tomorrow marks the one-week anniversary of the Amy Bishop case. And it seems that we may not have even reached the starting line of this story, which began when the University of Alabama professor was accused of killing three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.

There are three major strands, only one of which is being thoroughly explored at the moment. Give it time. We’ve only just begun.

1. Why was the 1986 Seth Bishop killing not thoroughly investigated? For the moment, this is the only aspect of the story getting a good airing. It simply makes no sense that a 21-year-old woman could shoot her 18-year-old brother, flee the scene, threaten others with a gun, and then have the whole thing explained away as an accident.

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory has called for Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint “an independent prosecutor to investigate whether local and state authorities were corrupt or completely incompetent.”

At the very least, we are talking about a scandalous level of ineptitude. A proper investigation could implicate everyone from members of the Braintree police department all the way up to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who was the Norfolk County district attorney at the time.

2. Who sent a letter bomb to Harvard Medical School professor Paul Rosenberg in 1993? Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, says he and Bishop were questioned and cleared. But there was never an arrest. And now Anderson has been caught saying something rather suspicious.

The New York Times reports that Anderson said they had received a letter from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that said: “You are hereby cleared in this incident. You are no longer a subject of the investigation.” But former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan, who was the interim head of ATF at the time, tells the Boston Globe that it would have been highly unlikely for such a letter to have been sent out, especially given that Bishop had not publicly been identified as a suspect. Sullivan adds:

There probably were one or two times during my career as a federal and state prosecutor where I felt an obligation to give that type of letter because a person’s reputation was harmed through no fault of their own and there was an exoneration of the individual.

3. What did officials at the University of Alabama know and when did they know it? Given that Bishop was not charged in either the 1986 or the 1993 incident, I can certainly believe officials there had no way of knowing about her dubious past. But her odd behavior as a professor on the Huntsville campus is becoming an issue.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a colleague had said she was “crazy,” which may have been a factor in both her not receiving tenure and in a gender-discrimination complaint she filed. The professor asked not to be identified because he fears for his own safety. According to the Chronicle:

The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop’s tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop’s mental health “about five minutes after I met her.” The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was “crazy.” Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop….

The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn’t. “I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that,” the professor said. “This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren’t normal.” No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was “out of touch with reality.”

When he first heard about the shooting, the professor adds, his initial thought was “Oh my God. I bet it was Amy Bishop.”

According to the Associated Press, Bishop’s students knew there was something off about her as well.

Finally (for today), the Huntsville Times is compiling an archive of Bishop coverage that is well worth perusing.

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  1. Bob Gardner

    Were other people questioned in the attempted letter bombing? Should the public be warned about them too?

  2. Ron Newman

    regarding the Chronicle article: the anonymous source is not identified by name but is ‘a member of Ms. Bishop’s tenure-review committee’ and is male.

    That makes him a member of such a small group of people that I wonder how effective his anonymity really will be.

    Also, the commenters on the Chronicle article are on the whole negative, saying that the writers have engaged in tabloid journalism.

  3. I think it is odd that the file from her case in braintree was lost. first reports sd that a retired policeman had taken the file home w/ him!!! is that common? then this morning it sd the file was found in a pile of stuff that “belonged” to a deceased policeman who had worked on the case. Either way it seems VERY odd to me that the file wd be floating around or a souvenir for a policeman.
    I wonder just what the connection was between the mother and the politicians and the police. who was she especially cozy w???? And what did the father teach at northeastern Must say they lived in a fabulous house!

  4. Catherine Tumber

    From what I can tell, Samuel Bishop taught film at NU. (Hi Elsa!)

    I wonder whether there might be a reprisal of the Lizzie Borden syndrome at work here. Ole Lizzie gave her parents forty whacks–no doubt about it–but she was exonerated because no one believed a woman, and a woman of her class, could do such a thing.

    Smart, quirky, promising young Amy: blowing away her little brother couldn’t possibly have been intentional.

  5. Bill Duncliffe

    Catherine – Tons of speculation by everyone here including me but I’m struck by the thought that Amy’s problem was that little brother was a little more promising than her.

    One completely odd fact seemingly unaddressed in the police report – She discharged the weapon upstairs, went downstairs for help and then “mistakenly” discharged it again? Was there forensic evidence of the discharge upstairs?

    If so, was it a) a first attempt at little brother that missed, b) a post-little brother shooting discharge of the weapon to jibe with the cover story or c) the innocent event claimed?

    If c, where was the probing of that in the police report?

  6. LFNeilson

    It all does seem a little (or a lot) weird, but let’s let justice pursue its course in Alabama before we commit prejudicial publicity.

  7. Aaron Read

    That makes him a member of such a small group of people that I wonder how effective his anonymity really will be.

    Identities of P&T members are closely-guarded secrets at most colleges. But while I’m no lawyer, if I were a betting man I’d wager that the estates of the victims will be suing to get that man’s identity and any previous reviews of Bishop that he may have made. That’d be raw meat for a wrongful death lawsuit, would it not?

    It does make me really question the statements he’s making, though. It’s too easy to believe that he’s trying cover his ass by claiming that he warned people for a long time that Bishop wasn’t stable. And this way he gets to have his cake and eat it, too: if his cover is blown, he falls back on his statements. If his cover stays, his anonymity insulates him from the comments.

    Or maybe it’s just an honest appraisal, ya know? Hell, it could be both…maybe he really did warn people that Bishop was nuts.

  8. BP Myers

    Her husband is the gift that keeps on giving.

    As much as it amuses me (“We didn’t have a gun . . . yes we did), her lawyer really needs to tell the guy to shut up.

  9. Pat Daukantas

    I have noticed that none of the Amy Bishop stories on the Globe’s Web site allow readers to post comments, even though is still obviously accepting comments on stories about Logan Airport, Mitt Romney, etc. Did the Globe take this step because of particularly vicious comments, or is this the Globe’s standard procedure now for crime stories?

    Personally, I’d like to see less of the nastiness as exemplified by the comments in this Washington Post story about a recent shooting victim.

  10. Bob Gardner

    “her odd behavior as a professor on the Huntsville campus is becoming an issue”
    What if Bishop had been arrested for getting into a fight in a laundromat and kicking some guy in the chest? Would that be an issue?

  11. Al Fiantaca

    @Pat: I just got through reading the WP comments at the link you provided. From what I saw, those comments, while foolish and insensitive, were mild compared to many I have seen in comments at the end of newspaper articles. The Providence Journal story following the Kennedy announcement not to run for reelection is another example. The shrill nastiness, without good reason, is just too much, and probably a reason why some papers are discontinuing, or closing off comments.

  12. Al Fiantaca

    @ Those inside academia. Can you elaborate on the purpose for tenure, and the reason why it seems that failure to achieve is a death sentence for an academic career at a given college? Is there a place for a sound, capable, instructor who, while they stay up on all the changes in their subject, does not do research or publish, but turns out educated students. It sounds a little like the difference between the high profile professors who do the research, publish papers, give the college its reputation for excellence, but are not the ones that the average student takes a course with.

  13. Aaron Read

    @Al Fiantaca: wikipedia is a good a place as any to start if you want to know more about the history of tenure.

    In a nutshell the idea is to bind the professor to the university, a tie that binds both ways. The university gets to keep the professor’s knowledge and experience for the benefit of itself, and the professor knows they can’t easily be fired for doing/saying unpopular things…and much research and teaching in academia can be considered “unpopular”. Most universities are, perhaps paradoxically, EXTREMELY conservative in their thinking. “Conservative” in the “anti-risk-taking” sense. *Nothing* is allowed to rock the boat.

    If you’ve been denied tenure, your college has said that you are not worthy of teaching there. So you’re done with that school. And you’ve now got an albatross around your neck as very, very, VERY few colleges will take a risk on you now.

    Tenure is designed for an academic system that operates independent of market forces. It became the standard during a time when most of the US did not go to college; only the elites did. And most colleges could afford to operate quasi-independent of economic reality thanks to wealthy alumni.

    In today’s world, colleges are far more market-driven thanks to the “need” for much larger endowments. College presidents are much more fundraisers than anything else, which is a major departure from 50 years ago. And that mindset has percolated down throughout the overall academic structure.

    In some ways, this has made tenure more important than ever, as professors in “economically unsound” arenas fight to maintain relevance. In many other ways, though, tenure has become a way for professors that have lost too much relevance are still there and making change…sometimes much-needed change…virtually impossible.

    Couple that with the severe problem of far too few tenured positions available for way too many applicants. The odds in many fields, especially non-science fields, of successfully getting a tenured position at ANY four-year college or university are about as bad as getting a roster spot on a professional sports team. Worse, even, since most athletes will play for maybe 5, 10…15 years at most, usually. Whereas a tenured professor may easily hold that spot for over four decades.

    FWIW, it sounds like you’re equating “tenure” with “high profile” professors. That’s not the case. Tenure can be assigned to professors who teach in any one of a dozen different style, or don’t really teach at all (research professors). It depends entirely on the college and even on the department within the college: some place a research on being a “rock star”, others on research, others on churning out educated students, and other still on some balance of all three.

  14. Mary DeChillo

    Thanks Aaron Read for the description of college tenure. I would add that professors in most colleges and universities are on a six year “tenure track” and if they are not given tenure in their last year, they are allowed to stay for one more academic year to finish up the work they have in progress and to do a search for another job. It was this last year, in which Bishop was still at the university teaching but her time would be ending at the end of spring semester. Not getting tenure places the employee, colleagues and the university administration in an awkward situation for that last year. I have often wonder why that last year is allowed, as it places a burden on everyone involved, including the students. Students shouldn’t have to deal with a disaffected employee who no longer has an investment to the institution.

    Tenure also applies in the K-12 system of public education. Only teachers get “professional status”(tenure) after 3 years instead of 6 as is the case in higher education. Union officials will say that teachers can be removed anytime after the initial 3 years, but it is almost impossible to do so. So teachers k-12 have lifetime appointments in the same manner that faculty in higher education do.

    Either system seems archaic and not helpful to students.

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