“I’m done,” Amy Bishop told her husband when she called him minutes after shooting six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama in February 2010 — three of them fatally. Now, finally, so is the legal wrangling surrounding her case.
On Tuesday, Bishop, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of capital murder involving two or more people and three counts of attempted murder. The former University of Alabama-Huntsville biology professor, who had been denied tenure in the months before she went on a shooting spree in an afternoon faculty meeting, had earlier pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In exchange for her new plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend several life sentences—but not the death penalty.
Bishop’s crimes rocked not only Huntsville, Alabama, where she and her husband and four children lived, but also another city 1,100 miles away: Braintree, Massachusetts. It was there that Bishop had killed her 18-year-old brother, Seth, with a shotgun in 1986. Bishop, then 21, and her parents always maintained that the shooting was an accident. But that case was reopened after the events in Huntsville, and Bishop was charged. Prosecutors there have yet to decide whether she will be tried for murder.
The Alabama shooting also prompted much debate about the pressures of academia in general and of the tenure process in particular. But the more I found out about Bishop’s history of aggression, the less I bought into the Tenure-Made-Her-Do-It assertion theory that gained traction at the time. Bishop was deeply troubled. All you had to do was read her unpublished fiction to see that.
I went to Huntsville for Wired after Bishop killed her boss, biology department chairman Gopi Padila, and her fellow professors Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson. Professor Joseph Leahy, who was wounded along with staff aide Stephanie Monticciolo and assistant professor Luis Cruz-Vera, was still in serious condition when I visited. A bullet had torn through the top of his head, severing his right optic nerve. But I did talk to Debra Moriarity, another colleague who had been in the room that day and who had begged Bishop to stop shooting. Bishop had responded by aiming her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol at Moriarity’s head and pulling the trigger. For some reason, the gun didn’t fire and Moriarity was spared.
I also went to Massachusetts for the story, which ran in March 2011. It was there that I discovered a cache of Bishop’s writings, which she had begun while studying at Northeastern University and working at Harvard. The three unpublished novels, which totaled nearly 900 pages, offered a window into Bishop’s troubled mind. The female protagonists were all scientists or aspiring scientists, and they all had violent daydreams. One — a Harvard researcher who works in a lab, as Bishop did — even jokes at one point about what she will bring to a potluck hosted by her boss by saying this: “A gun…. Death and destruction. Hell on earth. Horror.”
When I talked to Moriarity in the wake of the massacre, her memories of what she’d experienced as she crawled on hands and knees to escape Bishop’s wrath evoked that same imagery. Bishop’s eyes, she told me, were “very, very evil-looking.”
The Associated Press talked to Moriarity on Tuesday, and she told them she was relieved by the plea. She’d had a “terrible dream” about the trial just the previous night, she said, and she was glad none of her colleagues would have to go through that.
But the most hopeful thing she said concerned Leahy, whose injuries included numerous fractured facial bones that would require wiring his jaw shut, implanting a feeding tube into his stomach, and affixing a titanium plate to his forehead. This man, like everyone who survived that awful day, has truly suffered, so it was great to hear that Leahy has returned to teaching a full load of classes and conducting research this fall at the school. Only his eyesight is impaired, Moriarity said. “Mentally he is on top of things,” she told the AP. “It’s an absolute miracle. He’s a miracle.”
I never interviewed Bishop for my piece – her lawyers forbade it, though she gave other people close to her permission to talk. But as I looked at photos of her Tuesday – her face thinner now, her jumpsuit oddly similar in color to the red V-neck sweater she’d worn the day of the killings – she looked relieved. It’s a terrible thing when your mind goes dark and nothing makes sense and you do things – so many things — that cause so much pain. While we may never know now whether Bishop meets the legal definition of insane, it is clear that she struggled with depression. By all accounts, she’d been close to her brother – so close that she named her only son after him. What must it have felt like to see his body crumple to the floor? In her fiction, at least, it’s clear that image never left her for long.
When I spent a few hours in her home, talking to her husband James and meeting her kids, it looked like any other suburban tract house. But like the human mind, it was full of secrets behind its closed doors. I’d been told Bishop was a germophobe who kept her own, solitary bedroom in that house spotless and compulsively organized. When your mind is in chaos, after all, it can be comforting to arrange the objects that surround you – working outside-in, trying to find some peace.
I’m reminded of Bishop’s description of Beth, one of her heroines in her novels. “She mulled over words like love, loneliness, hopelessness, despair,” Bishop wrote of the character. “She looked at words like suicide and murder.” Now, Bishop has looked at many of those words again, signing her plea agreement, according to the AP, with a barely legible scrawl. Maybe it’s her way of saying, at long last, The End.