Stories of prosecutorial misconduct most often focus on the non-disclosure (or outright concealment) of exculpatory evidence. Every now and again, as with Mike Nifong in the Duke rape hoax, they concern the decision to prosecute persons the authorities know or should have known are innocent.
Less widely reported, but far more prevalent, is what any serious person would also have to consider misconduct: Doing nothing when events cry out for action. The reasons this sort of prosecutorial misconduct gets a pass are manifold: The defense bar is not about to complain; the press and the academy have an ideological stake in pretending prosecutors are never anything but "overzealous;" and there is no lobby to speak for future victims of criminals not brought to book.
Enter the case of Professor Amy Bishop, who last week gunned down three of her colleagues, ostensibly (so it is reported) because she was denied tenure. The rub is that this was not Ms. Bishop's first killing. Years before, she offed her brother in circumstances that were barely investigated then and are now subject to widely varying accounts. What is not disputed is that the DA at the time, Robert Delahunt (now a member of Congress), did not so much as present the case to a grand jury. Now there are allegations of a cover-up by the authorities.
James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal takes a look at the troubling story:
"Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." The adage is usually attributed to Henry Kissinger, though others apparently preceded him in the thought. Depending on how you look at it, the case of Amy Bishop is either a case in point or an exception that proves the rule.
A week ago, Bishop was an untenured professor of biology at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. On Friday she became a murder suspect. As the Christian Science Monitor describes it with grim understatement, "Bishop allegedly responded to others' failure to recognize her achievements as she saw fit by pulling out a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun at a faculty hearing, opening fire, and emptying bullets until the gun jammed and clicked in the face of a colleague." Three biology professors lay dead; two more profs and a staffer suffered injuries.
The shooting seems to have been in retaliation for the department's decision to deny Bishop tenure--essentially a guaranteed job for life. That made it a high-stakes matter for her, if not for anyone else:"You have to talk about Amy Bishop's mental health in this situation as one of the variables, but being denied tenure when you're in your mid-40s at an out-of-the-way obscure rural campus in the deep South is a catastrophic loss, and people don't understand that," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "If you're denied tenure, you're fired. And in this economy chances are you'll have to change your career, which is pretty hard for a woman who's spent a decade in graduate school on a prestigious campus, Harvard, and had a good reputation for scholarship. Where is she going to go?"
To prison or the electric chair, we suppose. Sorry, we guess that was a rhetorical question. But of course lots of people--even Harvard grads!--suffer career setbacks, and few of them go postal (or should we say postdoctoral?).
It turns out Bishop has a violent history, although she apparently has never been convicted of a felony. The New York Times reports that in 1986 she shot her brother to death:On Saturday afternoon, the police in Braintree, Mass., announced that 24 years ago, Dr. Bishop had fatally wounded her brother, Seth Bishop, in an argument at their home, which The Boston Globe first reported on its Web site. The police were considering reopening the case, in which she was not charged and the report by the officer on duty at the time was no longer available, said Paul Frazier, the Braintree police chief."The release of Ms. Bishop did not sit well with the police officers," Chief Frazier said in a statement, "and I can assure you that this would not happen in this day and age." He said at a news conference on Saturday that the original account describing the shooting as an accident had been inaccurate and, The Globe said, that while he was reluctant to use the word "cover-up," it did not "look good" that the detailed records of the case have been missing since 1988.
The records have since been found and are available here.
The Times notes: "The district attorney at the time was Bill Delahunt, who is now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts." A day before the news conference, the Boston Globe reported that Delahunt said "that he is considering retiring from his congressional seat representing the South Shore and Cape Cod, although he portrayed his deliberations as routine and said they are not related to challenges from Republicans who are energized by Scott Brown's upset victory in last month's special Senate election." Brown ran especially strongly in Delahunt's district.
Delahunt's involvement in the Bishop case is unmentioned in the Globe report and does not seem to have been behind his mulling of retirement. But combined with other stories in which criminals were treated with excessive leniency (Willie Horton, Keith Winfield) and innocent people were persecuted (the Amiraults), it does make us wonder if there is a serious systemic problem with Massachusetts' criminal justice system.
The Globe reports that in 1993 Bishop "was a suspect in the attempted mail bombing of a Harvard Medical School professor":Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, were questioned after a package containing two bombs was sent to the Newton home of Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a professor and doctor at Boston's Children's Hospital. . . .Rosenberg was opening mail, which had been set aside by a cat-sitter, when he returned from a Caribbean vacation on Dec. 19, 1993, according to Globe reports at the time.Opening a long, thin package addressed to "Mr. Paul Rosenberg M.D.," he saw wires and a cylinder inside. He and his wife ran from the house and called police.The package contained two 6-inch pipe bombs connected to two nine-volt batteries.In March 1994, the Globe reported that federal investigators had identified a prime suspect in the case. But the article did not name the suspect.
No one was ever charged in the attempted bombing. (Since it was a federal investigation, Massachusetts officials are off the hook for this one.)
Bishop did plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges in an assault described by the Huntsville Times:The bizarre incident happened at an IHOP restaurant in Peabody, Mass., on March 16, 2002, a Saturday morning. According to the police report, a 37-year-old woman who had walked into to the restaurant just before Bishop got the last available booster seat.When Bishop arrived with her family and was told there were no more booster seats, the report says, she became "very angry and loud and stated that, 'We were here first.' "The victim told officers that Bishop, then working as a Harvard researcher, came to her table and launched into an abusive, profanity-laced tirade. The woman was at IHOP with her two young children, whose ages are not listed on the report.Bishop was so irate that the restaurant manager came over to try to calm her down.
"She continued to shout and at one point exclaimed loudly, 'I am Dr. Amy Bishop!' " the report says.
When the manager asked Bishop to leave, it says, she punched the other mother in the right side of the head.
In light of this history, we would speculate that the crime with which Bishop is now charged may be better explained by her own predispositions than by the pressures of the tenure process--although a writer for Psychology Today, while acknowledging "the personality factor," not only emphasizes "the gripping emotional pain that is often attached to university tenure decisions" but actually presents the killing of Bishop's brother as a mitigating factor:The facts that are emerging about the personal life and behavior of Amy Bishop is that she is a very gifted, extremely hard working woman who has borne the guilt since she was 20 years old of having been her brother's killer. . . .According to one report by a friend, Bishop carried a deep sense of guilt about the death of her brother and planned to make it up by becoming a prominent scientist. This fact is significant for two reasons: (1) she is one who can not be said to be anti-social or psychopathic to the extent that she was haunted by what she had done, and (2), she felt compelled to try to make up for an act that few could live with. Work to her was thereby primary in her life.