As with all such shootings, the mass murder at the University of Alabama, Huntsville is shocking and disturbing. But it has some uniquely shocking factors.
The U of A shooting appeared at first to follow a common pattern of workplace mass murder: revenge for a job lost or denied, or slights from fellow workers. But from the start it also had two factors that were extremely unusual: the perpetrator, Amy Bishop, was both a female and a professor.
Workplace mass murderers tend to overwhelmingly to be men, disgruntled employees fired and down on their luck. Female mass murderers are not only less common, but when they occur their focus is generally domestic. But there was some precedent for Bishop’s act: the case of Jennifer San Marco, a female former postal employee and workplace murderer who had a history of prior mental problems
Speaking of prior problems—the U of A case quickly became even more shocking when it was disclosed that perpetrator Amy Bishop had shot and killed her 18-year-old younger brother, an aspiring violinist, twenty-three years ago in their family home in Braintree Massachusetts. That case was ruled an accident and dismissed under mysterious and poorly-explained circumstances, with rumors of a police cover-up, perhaps because of Amy’s mother’s position on a police personnel committee.
As if that weren’t enough, news subsequently emerged of another case in which Bishop was a suspect: in 1993, a pipe bomb was mailed to a work colleague of hers by an unknown assailant, and Bishop fell under suspicion because she had feared a negative evaluation by him. The bomb never exploded, and there was not enough evidence to convict her, but the case is chillingly similar to the recent shootings in terms of possible motive.
It begins to appear that Ms. Bishop was hardly the cool and cerebral scientist and suburban mother of four who suddenly snapped in the face of work pressure. It is difficult to escape the notion that she is not only a recent mass murderer but also a long-time serial killer, and that her victims include the categories of both domestic and workplace. This would make her one of the most versatile killers around—as well as one of the strangest—who benefited greatly in the past from police corruption and/or incompetence.
It’s hard to know which of the two was operating most powerfully in the long-ago Braintree slaying. The facts as described in the police report (please read) make little sense on their face, and ought to have aroused suspicion (other records in the case seem to have mysteriously disappeared long ago). Here’s a summary of the police report:
According to the investigation report, after Amy and her father had a disagreement, he left for a shopping trip and she went to her room. Amy decided to go to her parents’ room to teach herself to load the shotgun the family had acquired the previous year for protection after a break-in. She succeeded but could not remove the shells, and the gun fired in the bedroom. Amy then went downstairs to ask for help unloading it and inadvertently shot her brother while her mother watched, according to the report.
Their stories to the detectives contained some discrepancies. Amy’s mother said Amy asked her for help unloading the gun; she told Amy to be careful where she pointed it, and that Amy turned and accidentally shot her brother. Her mother said she screamed and called the police, as Amy ran out of the house.
Amy said she asked her brother, not her mother, for help unloading the gun, and that she was pointing it beside her leg for safety. She said her brother told her to point it up instead. As he walked across the kitchen floor, someone said something, and Amy turned and the gun went off.
There are so many problems here that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with this one: does it seem like normal and innocent behavior to practice loading a shotgun you’re unfamiliar with right after having a quarrel with your father? Then, if the gun goes off accidentally in an upstairs bedroom while you’re trying to unload it, does it seem like normal and innocent behavior to take the gun down with you into the kitchen where your mother and brother are in order to let them know what’s happening and get their help?
No, of course not. You would know that it is courting disaster for a novice to fool around with a gun alone; a qualified person should be present for careful instruction. You would know that, after the first accidental discharge, you should put that thing down immediately and leave it upstairs, because you had already received a very clear demonstration of its dangerousness in your very untrained hands.
The report contains an additional strange vignette: Amy reported that as the gun went off and she heard her brother say “oh, no” and her mother scream, Amy then ran out of the house without realizing that her brother had been shot. This is also highly implausible, even in an accidental shooting as described. Yes, the perpetrator might run out of the house in fear, but only after seeing that he/she had shot someone. Amy reports she fled because she thought she might have damaged the kitchen—but if so, why not look? Why would she not turn around when she heard her mother scream?
As written, the report makes it very clear that the police were relying on the eyewitness testimony of the mother of both victim and perpetrator, who labeled it an accident. That was the supposed reason why they did not investigate further. But given the facts of the case, this seems either remarkably naive, or evidence of the fact that the fix was in. The police took the mother’s word that she did not hear a shotgun firing upstairs in her own house while she was present? And they didn’t even bother to test out the gun to see if this was a reasonable statement?
The report also fails to mention the specific type of shotgun used, an omission that seems highly unusual, as well. I am quite ignorant about technical issues involving guns, but the police should not be. Note as well the following comment at Volokh:
Pump-action shotguns cannot be fired accidentally more than one time. They are not automatic, meaning they do not pump (expel a spent shell and load a new, live shell) by themselves…The trigger did not go off without being pulled with significant force. Unless it was specifically altered, the trigger force was at least 5 and usually 6.5 pounds. Brushing it, jostling the gun, etc. does not make a shotgun go off. You must pull the trigger, hard…The gun did not go off until someone took the safety off. All widely-available shotguns, unless modified, have safeties. None are designed so that the safety can be taken off accidentally.
See also this:
I like how the “investigators” make no mention of physical evidence. You know like the kind, make and caliber of the shotgun, the spent shells and their location, the nature of the prior discharge in her room, the distance from which the victim was shot and whether that corresponded with the statements, etc. No, just mom’s word and they were off to catch some speeders
Speaking of mom’s word, see this:
I’m sure that the defense attorneys here will be thrilled to learn that “my mom said I’m innocent” is now considered probative.
Good point; it should hardly have been enough. But when the exonerating mother of the perpetrator is also the mother of the victim, perhaps her word might be more easily believed. At any rate, it should not be sufficient. However, here the police made no effort to build an independent case, despite the fact that the description of the witnesses just did not make sense.
In the light of all that has happened since, it is interesting to note that, on the last page of the Braintree police report, Amy Bishop seems to be describing having something like a dissociative experience when she says she did not see her brother or remember anything about putting on her jacket or going outside with the gun. It’s difficult to know whether she is being disingenuous; perhaps she is. But perhaps not. It is certainly possible for a perpetrator to split off psychologically from his/her own aggressive actions and deny the crime ever happened. This should not absolve perpetrators of legal responsibility for their killings—but it is a psychologically protective mechanism by which they internally and externally deny their own overwhelming guilt.
It is possible that this sort of splitting and denial is another of Amy’s patterns. After the U of A killings, she is reported to have said the following:
Bishop was calm as she got into a police car Friday, denying that the shootings occurred. “It didn’t happen. There’s no way. … They are still alive.”
It is easy to say that Amy Bishop is just a cold-blooded liar, since she is certainly a cold-blooded killer. But it is not unbelievable to think that her psychological splitting is real, and that she is able to block off the memories of what she has done, although this fact should not reflect on her guilt and subsequent punishment.
[NOTE: In this article, relatives of the U of A shooting victims question—and understandably so—how it was that Bishop was ever hired to teach with such a record. The problem is that her record, although extremely suspicious, did not include any charges or arrests. Therefore there was nothing in her past that she would ordinarily have had to disclose in the usual questionnaire.
Perhaps hiring committees should do exhaustive Google searches of all candidates. Perhaps some of them already do.]
[ADDENDUM: Here are two contemporaneous news stories about the original Braintree killing. You can see that they differ in some small details from the police report.]