Premeditated Multiple Killing, Tenure and the Insanity Plea

–Richard E. Vatz

Never, in retrospect, has murder been so unsurprising.

According to those present, Amy Bishop, a bitter, tenure-denied faculty member at The University of Alabama at Huntsville, sat quietly through a faculty meeting, took out a gun after about an hour and began to execute her colleagues, one-by-one. When a colleague, who had on earlier occasion offered Bishop help in her tenure battle, grabbed her to stop the mass murdering, Professor Bishop pointed the gun at the colleague, but it jammed, a stroke of good luck in an otherwise ugly, luckless scene.

Amy Bishop may plead insanity – why not? The mystifying and thoroughly invalid plea (see volumes by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and endless articles by Jeffrey Schaler and this writer) is part of Americana and is unquestioned as a legitimate concept, although not its specific use, by most citizens.

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The plea and its brother – not criminally responsible – stem from theoretical notions that some people, when they kill, lack the capacity to formulate criminal intent.

There is no evidence that anyone who illegally kills someone intentionally lacks criminal intent. How would that be measured outside of mystifying arbitrary interpretation by professionals legally enfranchised to do so, like psychologists and psychiatrists?

Irrespective of your feelings regarding people’s lacking the volition to murder, Amy Bishop did not. She was a miserable human being – miserable to neighbors, kids, colleagues and others – throughout her life. She killed her 18-year-old brother after an argument in 1986 and tried to escape, using a shotgun to try to commandeer a car from a Ford dealership. Why wasn’t she charged in 1986? No one knows, but her mother testified that it was an accident.

In 1993 she was a major suspect in the attempted murder of a Harvard Medical School professor who upset Bishop due to a negative evaluation.

In the current killings Professor Bishop was reputedly outraged at not receiving tenure. Tenure decisions often involve more than just a cold, empirical analysis of scholarship, teaching and service; they involve interpretation throughout, and such evaluation in all but the most patently worthy cases is an art, not a science. But part of tenure evaluation at many colleges and universities is collegiality, which, however sterilely defined in university documents, means “Are your colleagues willing to spend an academic lifetime with you.”

I do not know all of the particulars of the Bishop tenure case, but I can tell you that given some of what has leaked out – complaints by students; publication co-authored by one’s children in a vanity press – it is not hard for anyone to make a case against Professor Bishop.

This is an old story: bright professor with non-slam-dunk credentials being evaluated by fearing and loathing colleagues who thank God she’ll be gone after a negative tenure review. Professor resents the action, appeals, and seeks legal advice.

In this case, however, she murders her hierarchical superiors.

Unusual, yes. Hard to fathom this individual committing such a crime?


It’s called premeditated murder, and Alabama provides for the death penalty.

Let’s hope they come through in this case.

Richard Vatz teaches rhetoric of psychiatry in his Persuasion course at Towson University and is Associate Psychology Editor of USA Today Magazine and an editor at Current Psychology

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