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Bishop transcript raises new questions

Police response appears unusual

Eric Schultz/Associated Press

Amy Bishop killed her brother, Seth, in 1986 in a shooting that was initially ruled accidental. She was indicted in the case in 2010.

Officer Ronald Solimini saw Amy Bishop in back of a building with both hands on a shotgun and slowly backed away as he tried to calm her down. He was scared, he said, because he “knew what just happened.’’

Bishop, who had just raced out of her home after killing her brother, was soon handcuffed and brought to the Braintree police station, where the watch commander said he began filling out the booking sheet with the words: “murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, two counts.’’

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Within 20 minutes, however, Bishop was released without charge, in the company of her mother.

“It was a short period of time,’’ Solimini said, recalling that day in December 1986, according to newly released court documents detailing testimony given two years ago during a belated inquest into Seth Bishop’s death.

The more than 300 pages of previously impounded testimony provides the most detailed account to date of the police response to the Bishops’ home that day and the investigation that followed. But it leaves unanswered a critical question: What happened during that 20-minute period to persuade the police to change course and not press charges against a woman who had run through the neighborhood with a loaded gun, confronting two police officers and two bystanders.

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Large sections of crucial testimony were redacted from the inquest transcript, including all 20 pages of testimony from John V. Polio, the Braintree police chief at the time. Also redacted were key sections where it appeared answers were about to be provided.

The death of Seth Bishop at his sister’s hands and how law enforcement handled the case came under intense scrutiny after Bishop allegedly gunned down three colleagues during a 2010 faculty meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

The Norfolk district attorney soon requested the inquest into Seth Bishop’s death, which led to Amy Bishop’s indictment on first-degree murder charges in June 2010.

The same day, the Globe filed a civil suit, seeking a transcript of the hearing and the judge’s report.

A superior court justice released the documents Tuesday but redacted sections that could prejudice a jury in the Alabama case. He also redacted statements made by witnesses, including Polio, who are now deceased.

Bishop is scheduled to go on trial in Alabama on March 19 and will be pursuing an insanity defense. Alabama prosecutors have stated their intention to seek the death penalty.

“Given the nature of these cases, this court must be particularly sensitive to the prejudice that would likely flow from the release of inquest materials based on their potential to infect prospective jurors,’’ Justice Kenneth Fishman wrote in his decision.

Despite the redactions, the testimony of the former officers, investigators, and prosecutors portrays an investigation that was systematically mishandled at several levels of law enforcement, from local investigators who stonewalled their state counterparts to state investigators who seemed to shrug it off.

In testimony, several people involved in the case seemed at a loss over how it was handled.

“We turned all our reports in, and we figured that they would go to the detective bureau and that they would be . . . I mean everything was there, I mean for them to evaluate,’’ said Kenneth Brady, a retired police lieutenant who responded to the shooting at the Bishop’s home but said he was never interviewed by local detectives, State Police, or prosecutors. “I mean, I don’t know how it would have turned out.’’

When Bishop was taken to the station, James R. Sullivan, the watch commander, read her her rights and began to question her. He described her as very calm.

But when Bishop’s mother Judith demanded to see her daughter and ordered Amy to stop talking, the interview ended abruptly.

When Sullivan was asked during the inquest whether people are typically brought into the middle of an interrogation, his answer was redacted. So was Solimini’s answer when he was asked if he wondered at the time why Bishop was being let go.

Solimini testified that Judith Bishop repeatedly asked to see the chief when she arrived at the station, calling him by his first name.

William Finn, a retired Braintree police officer, said the booking officer would have needed an “order from high above’’ to release someone.

The testimony also shed more light on several shortcomings in the investigation, which appeared to have been closed almost immediately. A State Police homicide investigator assigned to the shooting said that he offered to respond to the scene, but that he was told the evidence had already been processed and that police believed the shooting was an accident.

The investigator, Brian Howe, said he then told Detective Theodore Buker of the Braintree police that he would come to the Police Department, but that he was told it was not necessary.

“He indicated that in light of the fact that the shooter, the female subject, had been released to her parents already, there was no need to come to the station because there were no interviews at that point to be conducted,’’ Howe testified. “He indicated at that point in time that he would arrange subsequent interviews with the family members and let me know.’’

Buker is now deceased.

Howe testified that he later made five or six requests for police reports and crime scene photographs but was repeatedly rebuffed.

Howe, who previously shared his account of the investigation with the Globe, interviewed the Bishops more than a week later at their home, instead of at the police station, which he said was uncommon.

“I assume that it was an accommodation that was extended to the family because of the circumstances,’’ he said.

Howe testified that the family’s accounts of the shooting “appeared to be basically consistent’’ and that he did not have any evidence to indicate that it was “anything other than accidental.’’

Howe’s supervisor, James Sharkey, also said that the office was overburdened at the time and that what appeared to be an accidental death did not seem to warrant the use of scarce resources.

“At that time in the unit, it isn’t like it is today,’’ Sharkey said. “We only had a total of eight men, including myself.’’

After later reading a report on the shooting, Sharkey said, he did not request any further action and never spoke to anyone on the Braintree police force.

Yet John Kivlan, assistant Norfolk prosecutor at the time, focused his criticism on Howe’s handling of the case, saying he should have obtained the police reports before he interviewed the Bishops.

“All of that is his responsibility,’’ Kivlan said. If Howe had told him he was facing resistance, Kivlan said, he would have gotten involved.

“I wouldn’t have made a phone call,’’ he said. “I would have summonsed them.’’

Their refusal to turn over documents would have “really raised questions in my mind about everything in the case,’’ he said.

Kivlan said that Braintree police “handicapped the investigation’’ from the outset by failing to notify state investigators before releasing the family and that Howe failed to investigate the crime thoroughly.

“He worked a number of major cases for me and for our office, but you know, when something like this occurs, I mean, you know, there’s no way around saying what happened.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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