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Mass. court to decide if report on death of Alabama suspect's brother to remain sealed
BOSTON (AP) ' It was only after Amy Bishop was charged with killing three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama that authorities in Massachusetts began to wonder if the shooting death of Bishop's brother 24 years earlier might not have been an accident after all.
After an inquest was conducted, a grand jury indicted Bishop for first-degree murder in her 18-year-old brother's death.
Questions about what went wrong during the original investigation remain unanswered. But a case going before the state's highest court could eventually yield some clues.
The Boston Globe is challenging a judge's decision to keep a report and transcript of the inquest sealed from public view. The newspaper argues that releasing the documents could shed some light on what led to the decision not to prosecute Bishop in her brother Seth's death. At the time, authorities accepted Bishop's claim that she accidentally shot her brother while trying to unload her father's 12-gauge shotgun in the family's Braintree home.
Bishop is fighting to keep the documents sealed, arguing that releasing them publicly could prejudice juries against her in both Massachusetts and in Alabama, where she faces a possible death sentence.
"That increment could make the difference that tips the balance toward death," Bishop's court-appointed lawyer argues in documents filed with the Supreme Judicial Court. The court will hear the case Tuesday.
Under Massachusetts law, inquest materials are automatically sealed until either a grand jury issues an indictment, a district attorney decides not to prosecute, or a grand jury declines to issue an indictment.
The Globe contends that Judge Elizabeth Donovan made a mistake when she failed to recognize that the automatic impoundment of inquest materials in the Bishop case ended once she was indicted in her brother's death. The newspaper's lawyers also argue that the judge wrongly relied on the SJC's ruling in one of the most famous inquests in Massachusetts, the investigation into the death of a woman killed when a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy went off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969.
The law in effect at the time required inquest reports to be filed with the court, but did not mention impoundment. So when the SJC was presented with the issue of whether the media would be allowed to attend the inquest, the court set new guidelines for public access, ruling that inquests would be closed to the public and news media. The court also ruled that if an indictment is returned after an inquest, the transcript and report will not become public until after either a trial is completed or there is a determination that a trial is not likely to occur.
In 1992, the Massachusetts Legislature amended the inquest law. The Globe's lawyers say the amended law said the impoundment of the inquest report expires after the grand jury returns an indictment, not after the trial is completed, as the court had ruled in the Kennedy case.
"There's no longer a requirement that if a grand jury returns an indictment, you have to wait until the trial is over to release the inquest materials," said Jonathan Albano, one of the Globe's attorneys.
Inquests date to colonial days in Massachusetts but are rarely conducted today. In the early days, inquests were conducted by coroners who investigated violent deaths.
By the time of Chappaquiddick, judges were conducting inquests. After taking testimony from witnesses, a judge writes a report detailing when, where and how the person died and the name of the person who either caused or contributed to the death. The report and transcript are then filed under seal in the court where the inquest is held.
Bishop's attorney, Larry Tipton, argues that the law gives judges discretion on when inquest reports should be released. He also argues that since Bishop has already been indicted, there is no legitimate reason to release the report before Bishop stands trial.
"The fact that the grand jury has returned an indictment for first-degree murder relieves any concern that the alleged botching of the police investigation twenty-four years ago might have foreclosed forever the proper exploration of the cause of Seth Bishop's death," Tipton wrote. He declined to comment on the case.
In her ruling, Donovan said that public release of the materials could jeopardize Bishop's ability to get a fair trial.
"The court balanced the rights of all concerned including the public to avoid embarrassment by premature publicity or any potential defendant in making a defense," Donovan wrote.
The Globe, however, contends that there is great public interest in finding out what went wrong in the original investigation into Seth Bishop's death.
"There was a crime that was committed here, and there were decisions made back then that may have potentially contributed to a tragedy in Alabama. I think the public has the right to know if officials did something wrong and what the mistakes were that were made," said Jennifer Peter, the Globe's metro editor.
Last year, when Amy Bishop was indicted, prosecutors said Braintree police in 1986 failed to share important evidence, including the fact that Bishop, after she shot her brother in the chest, tried to commandeer a getaway car at gunpoint at a local car dealership, then refused to drop her gun until police officers ordered her to do so repeatedly. Those events were described in Braintree police reports but not in a report written by a state police detective assigned to the district attorney's office.
Bishop went on to become a biology professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. On Feb. 12, 2010, she allegedly opened fire on her colleagues during a faculty meeting, killing three and wounding three others.