National

Feb 13, 2010 9:26 AM by MSNBC

Professor charged in university shooting

A biology professor was charged with murder late Friday in the shooting deaths of three colleagues at the campus.

Amy Bishop, a Harvard University-trained neuroscientist, was reportedly upset over being denied tenure.

Authorities say the researcher opened fire during an afternoon faculty meeting at the University of Alabama's Huntsville campus, killing the three colleagues and injuring three other school employees. Bishop has been charged with one count of capital murder, which means she could face the death penalty if convicted.

Bishop, 42, was taken Friday night in handcuffs from a police precinct to the county jail and could be heard saying, "It didn't happen. There's no way .... they are still alive."

Police said they were also interviewing a man as "a person of interest."

The mayhem occurred in a third-floor conference room of the Shelby Center, a 200,000-square-foot science building on campus.

University spokesman Ray Garner said Friday night the three killed were Gopi K. Podila, the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences, and two other faculty members, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson.

Two others were in critical condition, and a third who was wounded was upgraded to fair condition. The injured were identified as department members Luis Cruz-Vera and Joseph Leahy and staffer Stephanie Monticello. Their specific conditions were not released.

Sammie Lee Davis said his wife, Maria Ragland Davis, was a researcher who had tenure at the university. In a brief phone interview, he said he was told his wife was at a meeting to discuss the tenure status of another faculty member who got angry and started shooting.

He said his wife had mentioned the shooter before, describing the woman as "not being able to deal with reality" and "not as good as she thought she was."

According to media reports, Bishop had been denied tenure Friday morning. She apparently returned to a campus faculty meeting in the afternoon and opened fire, university officials and witnesses told NBC station WAFF-TV.

It was unclear how many people were inside the conference room at the time. Garner said the suspected shooter was apprehended outside the building without incident.

Nick Lawton, the son of a biology professor at the school, said his father was not among the victims, but he did not know much more.

Lawton, 25, was exercising when a friend phoned him to tell him about the shooting. He called his father, Robert Lawton, and found out that he was not hurt, then he let the rest of his family know.

"All I know is that my father is OK," Nick Lawton told The Associated Press.

Erin Johnson, a sophomore and a student aide, told the Huntsville Times there was a biology faculty meeting under way when she heard screams coming from the room.

University police secured the building and students were cleared from it. There was still a heavy police presence on campus Friday night, with police tape cordoning off the main entrance to the university.

Gina Hammond, a UAH student, told WAFF that she lobbied the University of Alabama trustees to allow students with gun permits to carry their weapons on campus. She was turned down.

"I'm scared to go back to school," Hammond said. "However, if they were to allow me to carry my pistol on campus, I would not be as scared.

"... I'm sorry that nobody in that room had a pistol to save at least one person's life," Hammond said.

"This is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions and a terrible a blow to our community," said U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith, R-Ala., in whose district the shootings occurred. "Now is a time for thoughtful prayer for those affected."

Bishop joined the UAH faculty in 2003. Her areas of research focused on the role of gases, especially nitrous oxide, on the central nervous system.

Her lab was working on the development of a "neural computer" that would use living neurons - taken either from stem cells or fish.

She was also known for her work on cell growth.

In June 2006, The Huntsville Times published a story involving Bishop and her husband, Jim Anderson, chief science officer of Cherokee Labsystems in Huntsville.

Together, the two designed a portable cell incubator that eliminates many of the problems with cultivating tissues in the fragile environment of the Petri dish, according to the article.

"It's great to actually see it hit the market, and the sooner the better," Bishop said in the story. "My colleagues think it will change the face of tissue culture. It will allow us, as researchers, to not live in the lab and control our tissue culture conditions, including the sensitive cultures including those like adult stem cells.

"The conditions to differentiate those have to be exact, and the incubator will help that."

The invention earned the couple $25,000 of seed money in a business competition.

The Huntsville campus has about 7,500 students in northern Alabama, not far from the Tennessee line. The university is known for its scientific and engineering programs and often works closely with NASA.

The space agency has a research center on the school's campus, where many scientists and engineers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center perform Earth and space science research and development.

It's the second shooting in a week on an area campus. Last Friday, a 14-year-old student was killed in a middle school hallway in nearby Madison, allegedly by a fellow student.

Mass shootings are rarely carried out by women, said Dr. Park Dietz, who is president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a California-based violence prevention firm.

A notable exception was the 1985 rampage by Sylvia Seegrist, who opened fire in a mall in Springfield, Pennsylvania, killing three. Dietz, who interviewed Seegrist after her arrest, said it was possible the suspect in Friday's shooting had a long-standing grudge against colleagues or superiors and felt complaints had not been dealt with fairly.

The Secret Service has studied 41 attackers in 37 school shooting incidents. Of those, all were male.

But there have been female school shooters. For example, in February 2008 a female student shot and killed two classmates and then herself at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge.

 

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