Americans understandably are focused on news about the January 8 shootings in Arizona that involved U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But news is breaking in another mass shooting, one that captured the nation's attention in the winter of 2010.
Lawsuits are accumulating as we recently passed the first anniversary of last winter's fatal shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).
Amy Bishop, a former assistant professor of biology, faces criminal charges in the shootings that killed three of her colleagues and injured three others. The rampage, last February 12, came not long after Bishop had been denied tenure.
At least five lawsuits have been filed so far, and none of them names either the University of Alabama System or its trustees as defendants. The lawsuits, however, can be amended to add defendants, and based on our research on the aftermath of the 2007 fatal shootings at Virginia Tech, our guess is that the university eventually will settle the cases for substantial sums of money.
The most recent lawsuit was filed on February 4 by Debra Moriarity, a survivor who now is interim chair of the UAH biology department. Reports The Huntsville Times:
The suit says Bishop repeatedly threatened, kicked or struck Moriarity during the meeting, and aimed a pistol at Moriarity at point blank range and pulled the trigger several times only to have the gun jam.
There is a curious sidebar to the Moriarity lawsuit. In an article about the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Jay Reeves of Associated Press wrote:
Public universities seem perpetually strapped for cash, and Moriarity said the loss of valuable research performed by Bishop and the shooting victims has reduced outside research grants coming into UAH. That's expected to improve as new teachers are hired.
Those words indicate that Bishop was a productive researcher whose work helped keep the department afloat. Other news reports have indicated the same thing. If that's the case, why was Bishop being fired? I worked in the University of Alabama System for 19 years, and I know that in academia, a denial of tenure is equivalent to being terminated. I also know that research productivity usually is the No. 1 criteria for awarding tenure.
Moriarity is suing Bishop, but she also seems to be admitting that Bishop was a valuable researcher, one whose productivity has been missed. So why again was Bishop denied tenure? That's a question that University of Alabama officials surely do not want the public pondering for very long
Am I suggesting that Amy Bishop was justified in shooting people? Of course not. Am I suggesting that she probably had good reason to be pretty darned angry. Yes. Is it stressful to be thrown out of your job during the Bush recession for dubious, or thoroughly illegitimate, reasons? It sure as heck is.
I know what it's like to have clod-headed and ethically challenged administrators ruin your career at the University of Alabama; I'm experiencing it at this very moment. UA officials at the Birmingham campus (UAB) created an environment that caused me to be unlawfully terminated after 19 years on the job. I suspect a similar dysfunctional environment was in place on the Huntsville campus. And I hope the victims and their families hold officials accountable for fostering an environment that led to tragedy. You can rest assured that the university hierarchy will do everything in its power to hide how badly the Amy Bishop tenure case was butchered.
It's not just my opinion that the University of Alabama currently is run by a bunch of crooks and fraudsters. Paul Bryant Jr., a member of the Board of Trustees, was owner of Alabama Reassurance, a company that was implicated in a $15-million fraud scheme. That case resulted in a 15-year prison sentence for a Pennsylvania man named Allen W. Stewart, and Justice Department officials had given the OK to pursue an investigation of Bryant's company. The Bryant investigation, however, mysteriously was called off, and Alabama Re eventually was liquidated. Bryant is the son of Hall of Fame football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, and it apparently helps to have family connections when federal investigators come knocking.
We have written numerous times about massive health-care fraud on the UAB campus, and the university settled a federal whistleblower lawsuit in 2005. A forensic accountant estimated the actual fraud at $400 million to $600 million, but the Bush DOJ let the university off with a penalty of $3.4 million, less than one percent of the likely fraud.
The Moriarity lawsuit is just the latest in a series of complaints stemming from the UAH shootings. In January, lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families of Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson, two professors who were killed in the shootings at a UAH biology faculty meeting. The lawsuits name Bishop, her husband James Anderson, and university Provost Vistasp Kharbari as defendants. Reports the Huntsville Times:
(The) lawsuits argue that had Karbhari followed policy, Bishop would have been assisted by counselors who would have confirmed her "dangerous instability" and investigated by UAH police, who would have discovered her history of violence. Regulations dealing with mental health emergencies "would have prevented her from attending the staff meeting of people she had threatened," the suit claims.
The lawsuit details a number of complaints about Bishop, her frustrations about not being granted tenure and the steps university policy requires in dealing with mental health emergencies and psychological crises.
Douglas Fierburg, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for the Davis and Johnson families, is with a firm that represented victims' families in the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings.
Joseph Leahy and Stephanie Monticciolo, who were wounded but survived the UAH shooting, filed a lawsuit in November against Bishop and her husband. Those complaints list several fictitious defendants, meaning a number of individuals or entities could be added to the case.
Gopi Podila, chair of biology department at the time, was the third person killed in the UAH shootings. So far, we've seen no reports of a lawsuit filed on behalf of his family. According to various news reports, Podila supported Bishop's bid for tenure, but he was overruled. Lawyers for victims and families are likely to examine a process where the opinion of the department chair, the person who should have been most familiar with the quality of Bishop's work, did not hold sway on a tenure matter.
How will these lawsuits proceed? Litigation always is difficult to predict, but the Virginia Tech case might give some clues.
Twenty-one families involved in the Virginia Tech tragedy settled with the university for $11 million in April 2008. That settlement came before a lawsuit had been filed. The families of Julia Kathleen Pryde and Erin Nicole Peterson opted out of the settlement and filed a lawsuit that has moved into the discovery stage. A judge ruled last November that Virginia Tech officials were not protected by sovereign immunity, and a trial is set for September 2011.
Sovereign immunity, a legal concept that protects state officials from suit under certain circumstances, is probably the reason that the University of Alabama and its officials have not been named so far in the UAH lawsuits.
Victims and their families are not likely to get much money out of Bishop and her husband. Any significant compensation almost certainly will have to come from the university or individuals who work at the university. Based on the Virginia Tech case, it's unlikely that Kharbari will remain the only named official in the UAH lawsuits.
The D.C. law firm apparently is willing to settle with schools short of a lawsuit, and it's possible that discussions already have taken place with UA officials. The filings of lawsuits might indicate that the university is digging in its heels so far. But playing legal hardball with families who have seen loved ones killed or injured on UA property could turn into a public-relations nightmare.
Worse for the university, perhaps, is the thought that any of the lawsuits could advance to the discovery stage. If that happens, the public could wind up finding out what happened with Amy Bishop's tenure process in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting.
As we reported previously, evidence strongly suggests that Bishop, while she had a prickly personality, met the criteria for tenure:
Reports about Bishop's teaching ability are a mixed bag. Some students rated her highly, finding her to be insightful, effective, and caring. Others complained, saying she lectured mostly from the textbook, gave unfair tests, and had a distant manner.
But Bishop's record as a researcher, alone, indicates that she probably met the criteria for tenure. UAH recently received an Area Research Enhancement Award (AREA) from the National Institues of Health, a grant designed to promote research at universities that have not traditionally received much NIH support. Who brought home that major grant? Amy Bishop.
We also have reported on signs of irregularities in the way Bishop's candidacy for tenure was handled. At least one prominent UAH alumnus has said the university deserves some blame for the shooting, saying it tends to treat faculty and staff like "expendable livestock."
The last thing University of Alabama officials probably want is for internal communications regarding the Bishop tenure decision to become public.
The UAH shootings already have generated some peculiar actions from public officials. Two investigations were reopened in Bishop's native Massachusetts following the Huntsville incident. In one, Bishop was cleared in an attempted mail bombing that took place 17 years earlier. In the other, Bishop was charged with first-degree murder in the 1986 shooting death of her brother. Officials originally had determined that the shooting of Seth Bishop was an accident. It's hard to understand what evidence could have surfaced over 24 years that would have turned that case from an accidental death into first-degree murder.
Is anything likely to be accomplished from the Massachusetts murder indictment? Other than political grandstanding from District Attorney William R. Keating, probably not. According to a report from the Boston Globe, Keating's own words indicate that the legal proceeding is mostly for show:
Keating said an indictment warrant has been lodged with Alabama authorities. He indicated that he would give the Alabama triple murder case priority. Asked whether Bishop would ever be tried in Massachusetts for murder, Keating said, "You never know.''
Sounds rather disingenuous, doesn't it? Expect similar behavior from University of Alabama officials as the UAH lawsuits unfold.
Our guess is that, after some time for legal gamesmanship, the survivors and family members will receive substantial sums for their pain and suffering. We certainly hope that is the case. But the public likely will never know about the mismanagement that helped spark a tragedy in Huntsville.