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Joan Vennochi

A justice system’s failure

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 21, 2010

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NANCY KERRIGAN’S brother can go home. That tells you a lot about the Massachusetts criminal justice system.

It buckles in cases involving domestic violence, mental health issues, and suspects who don’t fit any criminal stereotype. It also accommodates certain people - like Kerrigan’s brother - at the very moment it comes under harsh scrutiny for accommodating certain people - like Amy Bishop.

Bishop is the Harvard-educated neurobiologist who fatally shot three colleagues and injured three others at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. After that terrible bloodbath, questions have been raised about how and why Bishop was able to escape charges in the shooting death of her brother 24 years ago.

Mark Kerrigan, the brother of Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, is, so far, being held accountable for his father’s death. He faces assault and battery charges after last month’s alleged drunken attack on Daniel Kerrigan, who died a few hours later.

The state medical examiner ruled Daniel Kerrigan’s death a homicide. But Nancy Kerrigan criticized the medical examiner’s ruling and said her family will help her brother fight the charges.

In the meantime, over prosecutors’ objections, a judge ruled that Mark Kerrigan, 45, can move back home with his mother once he posts bail and is released from Bridgewater State Hospital.

Jessica Venezia, a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone, said prosecutors objected to Kerrigan returning to the home of his mother for several reasons. “We had numerous concerns about this, for the mother’s safety and because of his past history of violence,’’ she said.

Harvey Silverglate, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who has spent his career fighting what he considers over-zealous prosecution, said, via e-mail, “I have to admit that when I read that Kerrigan’s brother was being released and allowed to return home, I did a double-take. I was surprised. Unless the evidence that he was involved in a killing (whether it was murder has yet to be determined) is very weak, I don’t think that such a suspect would normally be released, at least not so quickly. So I cannot blame the prosecutor for opposing release.’’

Silverglate declined to criticize Woburn District Court Judge Laurence Pierce, who made the ruling, saying he did not know the full record before him.

The full record about Bishop is just starting to emerge.

It begins with the pass she got more than two decades ago, when the then 21-year old college student shot her 18-year-old brother. Bishop and her mother said it was an accident. No charges of any kind were filed, even though, after the shooting, Amy Bishop pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at two employees at a local auto body shop and demanded a getaway car. Local and state police and then-Norfolk District Attorney William Delahunt let the case slip through the cracks.

Bishop’s pass continued over time. She and her husband were questioned in the attempted pipe bombing of a Harvard Medical School professor in 1993. Investigators searched their home, but no one was ever charged.

The Bishop record goes on to include bizarre incidents signalling serious mental health issues. In 2002, she was put on probation after police said she punched another woman over a dispute over a booster seat at an International House of Pancakes.

Her lawyer in the Alabama shooting case is now saying she is likely insane. Her husband remains in denial, blaming his wife’s alleged rampage on an unsuccessful battle for tenure.

Mark Kerrigan’s disturbing past includes a battle with substance abuse and mental illness. He has been in and out of jail for violent crimes, including beating his wife, who told police he was “uncontrollable and unpredictable’’ when he drank. He also had a troubled relationship with his parents.

Despite all that, the Kerrigan family repeatedly helped him. They paid his legal bills, took care of his pets and mowed his lawn.

A family can forgive and deny in the name of love. But that is not the role of the criminal justice system. It has a higher duty, to act on facts and evidence and protect the public.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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