Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Alabama Professor Charged With 1986 Murder of her Brother

In February, a professor in Alabama was charged in the shooting deaths of three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.  Soon after, it surfaced that she had also shot and killed her brother in 1986 in an incident that was ruled at the time to be an accident.  Today, she was charged with murder in her brother's death.  Because the Alabama charges will take precedence, it is unlikely but not impossible that she will ever go to trial in Massachusetts.

The details of the brother, Seth Bishop's, death are worth looking at, because in hindsight this case is pretty odd.  In 1986, his sister loaded a shotgun in her bedroom, fired a shot and then brought the gun downstairs.  She and her mother, who was in the room at the time, reported that as she tried to unload the gun it went off, killing him.  She then left the house and tried to steal a car from an auto dealership.  She pointed the gun at police when they arrived but was eventually convinced to surrender.  In her room, authorities found a magazine article about another highly publicized case where a man killed his parents and stole a car from an auto dealership in an attempt to escape.  However, in this instance the sister was held for only a couple of hours before she was released without charge.

It's easy for me, 24 years later, to describe this in such a way that it seems the police were at best incompetent in this case.  How does someone try to steal a car and hold police at bay with a shotgun and not get charged?  I can understand believing the shooting was an accident, but the escape wasn't.  Why didn't her actions cause police to look more carefully at the shooting?

The thing that gives me pause every time I read about it, however, is her mother.  Judith Bishop says she was in the room when her daughter shot and killed her son, and she says it was an accident.  How can you watch your own child be murdered and stand by the murderer?  How can you not at least be angry at the reckless behavior that caused the accident, if you really believe it was an accident?

I can't know what was going on in Judith Bishop's head that day, but she has to have been stunned.  Whether or not she was actually in the room, her daughter had shot her son and he was dead.  Her first reaction -- the typical reaction -- would have been "this isn't happening."  So on that level, it makes sense that she told the police that it didn't happen, at least not on purpose.  Admitting to the death of her son was hard enough.  The possibility that her daughter did it intentionally would have been too much to process and accept right away.

Once the shock started to wear off, presuming that the shooting was intentional, Judith Bishop was faced with an agonizing situation.  Not only was her son dead, but the only person to blame was her daughter.  Her choice was to say that her daughter did it intentionally and, effectively, lose a second child soon after the first, or to stand behind her daughter and help herself believe that this was all a terrible accident.  She didn't make the right choice, but she made an understandable one.

If Seth Bishop's sister had been charged in 1986, she most likely would never have gone to graduate school or gotten her job in Alabama.  Most likely, her three colleagues would still be alive.  The charges today are little comfort to those families.  Following traumatic death, our minds naturally turn to blame.  Today, I'm guessing those families are pointing their fingers at Judith Bishop, who now, finally, has tragically lost her second child.

image:  Braintree High School 1986 Yearbook


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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