UAH Killer Professor Claims Insanity

As anyone who follows national news will have heard, last week in Huntsville, Professor Amy Bishop took out a gun at a faculty meeting for the UAH biology department and shot six of her colleagues, killing three.  Just one week earlier a 14 year old student at Discovery Middle School shot and killed a fellow 14 year old classmate, allegedly as part of a would-be gang renunciation.  Though the Huntsville-Madison city line runs between the two, the shootings occurred in the same community, only about 6 miles apart.  Both appear to be pre-meditated (the professor took a gun to the meeting, the kid took a gun to school).  One involves a middle aged Harvard educated white women, the other a 14 year old black boy.  It will be interesting to see how the two cases play out.

(Ordinarily I’d talk about a criminal proceeding in terms of the “alleged” attackers, but so far no one in these cases has disputed that the accused committed the act.  Both have multiple witnesses, and the real story is going to be arguing mitigating circumstances and the sentencing process.)

The most recent development comes from the Bishop case.  Her lawyer is claiming that Bishop suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and cannot be prosecuted because she is insane.  If you’re a criminal procedure junkie, you’re probably aware that a plea of insanity, if proven, does not mean that you get to walk free.  Given her questionable criminal history (shot and killed her brother in a death that was ruled an accident; was questioned in a pipe bomb mailing), my guess is that Bishop would end up in Tuscaloosa’s Taylor Harden Secure Medical Facility.  It’s essentially Alabama’s Arkhum, except that prisoners don’t routinely break out.  (Though, my senior year at Alabama, a man who killed his father did walk right out the front door of another mental health hospital down the road and go missing for two months.)

If she ends up succeeding with the insanity plea, she will likely remain locked up for life.  Her lawyer is probably taking this route to avoid the death penalty.  Not the worst strategy, since life in prison is the best option she’ll get at trial.  She may have a better chance at getting released from a mental health facility than getting paroled from prison.

Bishop’s attorney pointed to her tenure denial as the likely spark that set off her allegedly insane powder keg.  No doubt anyone who would shoot at 6 of her colleagues in cold blood has mental problems.  Bishop claims that she can’t remember what happened in the meeting, and I think that’s likely true.  Such an event would be traumatic not just for the victims and witnesses, but for the culprit as well.  It’s hard to think about anything horrible we’ve done, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Bishop’s mind had put a wall around the event.

However, Bishop’s tenure denial came last April, and the denial of her appeal on the matter was still months before the shooting.  Normally people get set off by big events like that closer to when they happen.  That’s not to say someone can’t brood for months and eventually snap, but I think the timing will work against Bishop.  Also, there seems to be lacking an important narrative to Bishop’s alleged schizophrenia.  I’m no mental health expert, but I think that people having paranoid delusions usually have…some sort of delusion.  We’ve yet to hear what the delusional story in Bishop’s head would have been.  Without some narrative that would explain why she killed her colleagues, it doesn’t seem like this will make for a good defense.  You can be paranoid and delusional, and at the same time commit a premeditated murder that isn’t explained by your mental condition.

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