I have been following with interest the case of Dr. Amy Bishop, the neurobiology professor accused of shooting six colleagues in a department meeting last week. Three of Bishop's university colleagues, including the department chair, are now dead, and three others are hospitalized with gunshot wounds in one of the most bizarre criminal cases in recent memory.
The dead victims were all biology professors at UAH: Dr. G.K. Podila, the department chair and a colleague who supported her tenure bid; Dr. Maria Ragland Davis; and Dr. Adriel D. Johnson, Sr. Two other biology professors, Dr. Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera and Dr. Joseph Leahy, and a staff member, Stephanie Monticciolo, remain hospitalized, and Leanhy and Monticciolo are in critical condition.
The case gets stranger seemingly every day, and news reports now detail a previous fatality involving Bishop and her late brother. The 1986 police report on a shooting involving the Alabama-Huntsville professor indicates that police investigated but did not charge Bishop with a crime in a shotgun fatality in which an "accidental" discharge by Bishop caused "a large chest wound" that ruptured her brother's aorta.
Bishop apparently seethed over a variety of conflicts with officials at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, not the least of which was the fact that Bishop had been turned down for tenure last spring. With a doctoral degree from Harvard, a respectable record of publications, and a history of bringing in revenue to the university with her research, it would seem that Bishop would be a slam-dunk for tenure, though of course departmental and university politics sometimes sink worthy tenure track candidates.
I certainly have witnessed some rather bitter political academic fights in the decade or so I have been in academia, but how a person could become so enraged over university politics is a mystery. I also scratch my head at the idiocy of a number of media outlets who suggest that the denial of tenure to Bishop meant that she would somehow never teach again. Perhaps Bishop might not have received another shot at the Holy Grail of academic tenure, but certainly a person with her talent level would not have remained unemployed for very long.
There is also a weird political angle to this story, as the district attorney at the time was Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA). Bishop was fairly well connected at the time, as her mother Judith was a city official in Braintree, and there are a number of media reports using the word "coverup" to describe the 1986 decision to release Bishop and close the case. This may be a Willie Horton moment for Delahunt, who no doubt will be grilled to explain how his office could fail to follow up on and prosecute what was potentially a murder case.
I cannot imagine the shock waves that this deadly shooting brought about, beginning with the families of the victims and extending through the many academic networks with which Amy Bishop was connected. In a few seconds of rage Bishop almost destroyed an entire academic department, and I suspect it will be many years before a state of normalcy will ever return to the biology department and UAH as a whole.
Coworkers and students described nothing unusual about Bishop's demeanor in the days and weeks prior to the shooting, but the professor obviously carried a deep grudge over events in the preceding year at UAH. While her mental state remains to be evaluated, it is clear that this was a premeditated act on the part of Dr. Amy Bishop, and I doubt that Alabama jurors will be receptive to attempts by defense attorneys to paint Bishop as insane.
Yet like the rest of the world I will no doubt continue to follow this strange tragedy, if for no other reason than to perhaps learn some clues into the behavior of people about to snap.