With Guilty Plea, University of Alabama Shooter Amy Bishop Writes Her Own Ending

Photo: The Huntsville Times/Landov

“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 All you had to do was read her unpublished fiction to see that.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.

House Approves Sweeping, Warrantless Electronic Spy Powers

Whistleblower Mark Klein provided this photo of a secret room in a San Francisco AT&T switching center, which housed data-mining equipment that enables the government to spy on electronic communications.

The House on Wednesday reauthorized for five years broad electronic eavesdropping powers that legalized and expanded the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

The FISA Amendments Act, (.pdf) which is expiring at year’s end, allows the government to electronically eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without a probable-cause warrant so long as one of the parties to the communication is believed outside the United States. The communications may be intercepted “to acquire foreign intelligence information.”

The government has also interpreted the law to mean that as long as the real target is al-Qaida, the government can wiretap purely domestic e-mails and phone calls without getting a warrant from a judge. That’s according to David Kris, a former top anti-terrorism attorney at the Justice Department.

The measure is sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the Obama administration has called its passage a top intelligence priority. (.pdf) The bill generally requires the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court to rubber-stamp terror-related electronic surveillance requests that ensnare Americans’ communications.

The government does not have to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application. The court’s rulings are not public.

The vote was 301-118 in favor of passage, with 111 Democrats and seven Republicans voting no.

Smith, while imploring the House to pass the measure, said the FISA Amendments Act “is one of the most important votes we cast in this Congress.” Terrorists, he added, “are committed to the destruction of our country.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) countered during a more than hour debate on the floor, urging the House to defeat the measure. “I think the government needs to comply with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution all the time,” she said. “We can be safe while still complying with the Constitution of the United States.”

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-California) demanded that his colleagues support the bill. “This is critical to the protection of the American people,” he said.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), in a passionate plea, sided with Lungren.  ”Intelligence is the lifeblood of our ability to defend ourselves,” he said. Moments later, he added: “Are we to believe that the Fourth Amendment applies to the entire world?”

But the future of the spy powers remains murky, despite the rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle in the House.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has put a hold on the matching bill in the Senate. Among other reasons, he said the government should disclose how many Americans’ communications have been intercepted under the law, which was adopted in 2008 as a way to legalize the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program that was initiated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The intelligence services say such an accounting is not possible and may not even be legal. Though even broad outlines of the NSA’s collection program are classified, presumably the NSA is collecting a staggering amount of Americans’ conversations, but only examining a small slice of them.

The House version extends the spy powers until Dec. 31, 2017. The similar bill in the Senate, which in May passed the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, extends the powers for three years.

According to one former Justice Department official, the FISA Amendments Act gives the government nearly carte blanche spying powers.

Kris, who headed the Justice Department’s National Security Division between 2009 and 20011, writes in the revised 2012 edition of National Security Investigations and Prosecutions:

For example, an authorization targeting ‘al Qaeda’ — which is a non-U.S. person located abroad—could allow the government to wiretap any telephone that it believes will yield information from or about al Qaeda, either because the telephone is registered to a person whom the government believes is affiliated with al Qaeda, or because the government believes that the person communicates with others who are affiliated with al Qaeda, regardless of the location of the telephone.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a letter (.pdf) signed by 20 rights groups, urged the House to oppose the measure. The groups echoed Wyden, saying if the measure is passed, lawmakers should require the Obama administration to publicize how often the act vacuums Americans’ communications and to ensure that “information collected under the FAA is not repurposed for government uses unrelated to national security.”

Many Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), were willing to extend the spy powers for three years, while adding in the safeguards that Wyden and the ACLU noted. “That’s a compromise you can’t turn from,” Conyers said.

For his part, Wyden has barred the Senate from a routine vote on the bill by invoking a little-used legislative power — called a hold — to block lawmakers from taking a procedural consent vote. Instead, he demands a floor debate that can draw out the approval process indefinitely via the filibuster. Still, Wyden said he would be willing to agree to a short-term extension, instead of seeing the spy powers lapse December 31, as a way to give lawmakers more time to reach a deal.

The National Security Agency told lawmakers that it would be a violation of Americans’ privacy to disclose how the measure is being used in practice. The NSA said the “NSA leadership agreed that an IG (Inspector General) review of the sort suggested would further violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”

Smart Meter Causes Dumb Fire

A General Electric smart meter after it burst into flames at a home in Illinois. Image courtesy of Shirley Bayliff

In June 2010, Shirley Bayliff was sitting at the piano in her suburban Illinois home, giving music lessons to a student, when she heard a “pop” outside the house before the power went out.

When she and her husband looked out the window, they saw five-foot flames shooting out from a new General Electric smart meter their utility company had installed as part of a pilot project. “Very, very scary,” she told Crain’s Chicago Business newspaper.

Apparently Bayliff isn’t the only who got a surprise from her smart meter.

Since then, two more of the 130,000 smart meters Commonwealth Edison installed in the area have burst into flames, one in 2011 and one this last July, according to the newspaper.

ComEd recently disclosed the fires, as well as information about 15 other overheating incidents that caused damage to smart meters, only after another utility in Philadelphia, Peco Energy, decided to suspend installation of smart meters there following a fire in a home and a dozen incidents involving overheating smart meters.

Fire from the smart meter melted part of a window screen (at right). Firefighters told the homeowner that her house would have been more damaged if the meter had been installed on a wood wall instead of one made from brick. Image courtesy of Shirley Bayliff

In the Philadelphia case, a neighbor called the fire department on a Sunday morning after hearing a pop and seeing sparks and flames shooting out from the meter of another house.

Overheating problems with smart meters have also been reported in Maryland by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. All three utility companies are owned by the Exelon Corp, based in Illinois.

ComEd described the incidents in Illinois as “small fires.” But Bayliff, whose meter caught fire just 71 days after ComEd installed it, says the flames would have burned down her house if the meter hadn’t been installed on a brick wall.

“We saw huge flames,” Bayliff told the newspaper. “Luckily, there wasn’t much damage because (the house) was brick … When the firemen arrived, the lieutenant said if we lived in a wood house they’d be ripping off the shingles and hosing down the attic right now.”

ComEd denied the fire was caused by the meter and blamed the combustion on faulty house wiring where the meter was installed, which the company said was Bayliff’s problem. ComEd said faulty wiring was behind a second fire as well. The third reported fire is still under investigation.

The utility refused to pay the $2,900 in damages to Bayliff’s house – which included a melted window screen and the cost of replacing the wiring – but relented after Bayliff threatened to make it a public safety issue.

“Once I got their attention, they were very accommodating,” she told the paper.