Suggestion of intent in ’86 shooting

Judge to review Bishop brother’s death; district attorney initiates inquest

By Donovan Slack and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / February 26, 2010

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Investigators have discovered evidence they say suggests Amy Bishop may have purposely shot her brother with a 12-gauge shotgun in 1986, prompting Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating yesterday to initiate a judicial inquest into the death, which had been ruled accidental.

Keating said his investigators enlarged crime scene photos and, next to 12-gauge ammunition in Bishop’s bedroom, found a news article that chronicled a crime spree similar to Bishop’s actions on the day of her brother’s death. He said the story could reflect Bishop’s intent.

Bishop took her father’s shotgun on Dec. 6, 1986, and loaded it in her bedroom before fatally shooting her 18-year-old brother in the kitchen of the family’s Braintree home. She then ran to an auto dealership, where she held two workers at gunpoint and demanded a car.

Keating declined to identify the news article or publication. A search of news reports published at the time shows that two weeks earlier, the parents of the actor who played Bobby Ewing on the popular television show “Dallas’’ were killed by an assailant wielding a 12-gauge shotgun, who then held up a car dealership, stole a pickup truck, and fled.

Keating - who said the article they found “closely mirrors what happened that day’’ in Braintree - also said there were contradictions in the witness statements taken at the time of Seth Bishop’s death. One said Amy Bishop fled through the back door of her house, while another said she ran out the front door. One said her brother’s body was found face up; another said it was face down.

Keating also said that when his investigators recently tried to interview Bishop’s parents - her mother, Judy, was the only eyewitness, and her father, Samuel, was a material witness - they refused to cooperate.

Bishop, 45, a professor of biology at the University of Alabama, is accused of slaying three colleagues in a shooting rampage at the school earlier this month.

“We owe this process to the Commonwealth,’’ Keating said at a press conference yesterday announcing the inquest. “We also owe this to the grieving families in Alabama.’’

Keating said that he believed serious mistakes were made in the initial investigation of Seth Bishop’s death, and that he could not help but wonder whether the deaths in Alabama could have been prevented if the original investigation had been more thorough.

Quincy attorney Bryan J. Stevens, who represents Bishop’s parents, declined to comment on Keating’s call for an inquest or his statement that the parents have been uncooperative.

“No comment,’’ Stevens said in a brief telephone conversation. “There’s nothing to report and nothing to be said.’’

Keating sent a letter yesterday to Quincy District Court Judge Mark S. Coven, initiating the judicial inquiry into the 1986 shooting. The judge will conduct the proceedings, questioning witnesses under oath, issuing subpoenas for documents, and ultimately issuing a report on his findings.

The inquest will be closed to the public, although the findings could be released.

Keating will then decide whether to present evidence to a grand jury, which could indict Bishop for homicide, the only crime for which there is no statute of limitations. The statutes have run out on other charges that Bishop could have faced for her alleged actions that day, including assault with a dangerous weapon.

US Representative William D. Delahunt, who as Norfolk District attorney ruled Seth Bishop’s death accidental at the time, blamed Braintree Police earlier this week for mistakes that were made in the case, even though Delahunt acknowledged that he was responsible for leading and directing the investigation. He initially stood by his ruling that the death was accidental.

But yesterday Delahunt agreed that the new developments and the questions they raise warrant further scrutiny. He declined to answer questions about mistakes his office may have made but issued a statement supporting the inquest, “given the many questions that have been raised surrounding the death of Seth Bishop and its immediate aftermath, combined with the review by the DA and the lack of cooperation from Judith and Samuel Bishop.’’

“I believe that this approach is necessary as it will provide us with facts developed in a manner that should clarify events that occurred on Dec. 6, 1986,’’ Delahunt said.

Delahunt’s top prosecutor at the time, John Kivlan, said yesterday that no one, including State Police assigned to his office, had told prosecutors about the newspaper found at the crime scene. He said it should have been seized and turned over to prosecutors with other evidence.

“Clearly that would have been significant and should have been included,’’ said Kivlan, who at the time recommended to Delahunt that Seth Bishop’s death be ruled accidental.

Kivlan said he had been relying on the recommendation of the trooper handling the case for his office, who told him it was accidental.

“It’s disappointing, to say the least, that a State Police officer that we respected and trusted to conduct this investigation failed to carry out his responsibilities to report significant facts to us,’’ Kivlan said.

Kivlan said prosecutors generally do not review crime scene photos in cases where deaths are thought to be accidental. He also asserted that prosecutors are not responsible for police failures.

“I don’t know how we can be found responsible for information that was either intentionally or unintentionally not brought to our attention,’’ Kivlan said.

The state trooper who handled the case for Kivlan and Delahunt, Brian L. Howe, has retired, and the Globe’s repeated efforts to contact him for comment have been unsuccessful.

Yesterday federal prosecutors announced they are reviewing a 1993 case in which a Harvard professor who supervised Bishop in his neurobiology lab received two pipe bombs in the mail three weeks after he ended her job at the lab. The bombs did not explode, and no one was injured. Bishop and her husband were questioned in the case, but no one was ever charged.

Bishop’s life has come under intense scrutiny since the Feb. 12 shootings in Alabama, when she allegedly opened fire at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, killing three colleagues and injuring three others.

The planned inquest adds a more formal level of scrutiny of her past, with greater potential consequences for Bishop and her family.

Needham attorney Timothy M. Burke, a former state homicide prosecutor, said an inquest is conducted before a judge to determine the circumstances of an unexplained death. A grand jury is a panel of 23 citizens, and its scope tends to be more general, encompassing any crime. In both cases witnesses are called to testify under oath.

“Generally an inquest is limited to causations of unexplained deaths that really need further information elicited while under oath,’’ Burke said. “And a judge makes the determination as to whether there is criminality.’’

Attorney General Martha Coakley applauded Keating, saying she believes an inquest is the appropriate course. “Over the past several weeks it has become clear that there was a need for an independent third-party review of what happened at the Bishop home in Braintree in December 1986,’’ she said in a statement.

Donovan Slack can be reached at