The decision by the Norfolk district attorney not to prosecute Amy Bishop in the death of her teenage brother — a case that predates by two decades the Alabama shooting spree that put her in prison for life — brought a reaction not commonly expected from the attorney of the accused.
“Amy Bishop needs her day in court,” her public defender, Larry Tipton, said Friday. “Most people would think the dismissing of a murder case is a victory. But when you know you didn’t do something, there is a solid reason to say I want to go through with whatever it takes to get at the truth.”
Tipton said Bishop’s parents, Judith and Sam Bishop, agreed that they wanted a trial to dispel public perception that their only daughter, then 21, intentionally killed their only son, then 18, in the family's Braintree home in 1986. The lawyer said the parents were willing to endure what would surely have been an agonizing trial.
“They were a loving and caring brother and sister,” he said.
The couple have long maintained that the shooting of Seth Bishop was an accident that happened when their daughter got hold of her father’s shotgun.
Tipton said he believes that Bishop’s shooting of her brother forever changed her, causing trauma that played a role in the Alabama crime. On Feb. 12, 2010, the Harvard-trained biologist killed three colleagues and injured three more during a meeting at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville, apparently because she was denied tenure.
After Bishop opened fire on her colleagues, law enforcement officials began to review Bishop’s past, and discovered the old, largely forgotten case of when Bishop shot her brother with her father’s gun, declared an accident at the time. A subsequent, closed-door inquest conducted after the Alabama slayings resulted in the first-
degree murder indictment of Bishop in the death of her brother.
“A family tragedy has been turned into a murder case,” Tipton said.
Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey initially emphasized largely pragmatic considerations when announcing Friday that he would not seek to have Bishop returned from Alabama to face murder charges. Bishop, now 47 and a married mother of four, was sentenced Monday to life in prison in Alabama after pleading guilty to shooting her university colleagues.
“The penalty we would seek for a first-degree murder conviction is already in place,” Morrissey said.
In a telephone interview, he acknowledged that other factors played a role, including the risk of escape anytime authorities move prisoners from one state to another and the “very long path and difficult road” from indictment to conviction.
Morrissey said a conviction on first-degree murder was far from guaranteed, particularly because the case drew on memories from so long ago and because one of the key witnesses, John Polio, who was Braintree police chief when the brother was shot, is dead.
The lack of a trial also spares law enforcement what would probably have been an unflattering portrait of the state’s police and prosecutorial work in the case.
On Dec. 6, 1986, Bishop told police she took her father’s shotgun, loaded it, fired a shot into a bedroom wall, then went downstairs, and accidentally shot her brother in the chest. She said she fired the gun while trying to unload it. She later fled the house, tried to commandeer a car at gunpoint from a Braintree car dealership, and then confronted police with the gun. Police eventually persuaded her to drop the weapon, according to police reports.
Bishop was brought to the police station to face possible charges of murder and assault with a dangerous weapon, but was released within 20 minutes, without charges, in the company of her mother, who has insisted the case was an accident.
A subsequent inquiry found that Braintree and State Police did not share critical information about the case. Prosecutors said they received incomplete records.
On June 16, 2010, a grand jury indicted Bishop in the death of her brother, who was a student at Northeastern University.
Bryan Stevens of Quincy, a lawyer representing the parents, said Friday that the couple declined to comment on Morrissey’s decision, though they have long maintained that their son’s death was an accident. “Despite all the finger-pointing among local police, State Police, and the district attorney’s office, there is no evidence that Seth’s death was not an accident,” the parents said in a statement in June 2010 after their daughter was indicted.
As some Braintree and state officials expressed relief that this complex, painful case had drawn to a close, Morrissey acknowledged that the investigation of Seth’s death was not textbook law enforcement work. “Some mistakes were made and time has compounded those mistakes,” he said.
When asked if he was surprised that Bishop’s defense lawyer is upset that his client cannot face a trial, he replied, “Nothing with this job surprises me.”
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com