Brutal Crime, Excessive Punishment: The Imminent Death of Dale Leo Bishop

Next week, the State of Mississippi is going to strap Dale Leo Bishop to a prison guerney and shoot him full of deadly chemicals. He's going to die for murder although he killed no one. He's going to die even though his case was grossly mishandled by a lawyer who refused to present mitigating evidence of the horrible abuse Bishop suffered as a child and his life-long struggle with mental illness. He's going to die even though the man whom prosecutors admit is the one who committed the murder has been spared, while Bishop has been condemned to execution by lethal injection.

The United States Supreme Court has refused to hear his appeal last month. The Mississippi Supreme Court then scheduled his killing for July 23.

It's a complicated case. It's an ugly case. Bishop took part in the brutal murder of Marcus Gentry ten years ago. Gentry was set upon by Bishop and Jessie Johnson, who believed that Gentry had ratted out Johnson's younger brother, Cory, to the police on grand larceny and burglary charges. In the course of a beating in which Bishop landed a couple of blows with his hands and held Bishop at one point, Jessie Johnson repeatedly struck Gentry with a claw hammer belonging to Bishop and finally killed him. Bishop was 24 at the time of the attack; Gentry was 19 years old.

At the trial in 2000, Bishop admitted taking part in the beating but said he didn't know Johnson was going to kill Gentry. After his conviction, Bishop, crushed, refused to make any mitigating statement, but instead declared that he was bound for Hell and asked the court to do what Gentry's family wanted to do: kill him. The judge said, "Mr. Bishop, I'm going to grant your wish."

After the trial, Bishop changed his mind and appealed the verdict. His case was handled by the state's Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel, set up in 2000 to help indigent death row prisoners. Here the case took a curious turn. As the Jackson Free Press reports:

Bishop’s lawyers accuse Robert Ryan, former director of the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel...with “extreme dereliction of duty” in Ryan’s failure to present mitigating evidence in Bishop’s appeal. The brief includes affidavits supporting the defense’s allegations that Ryan deliberately suppressed his own staff’s investigation, which revealed Bishop’s life-long mental illness, and summarily dismissed the volunteers working on the case.

“The director simply discarded this proof and substituted his own unsubstantiated and frivolous allegations (with the appeal). All the while, Bishop himself had no idea his lead lawyer was sabotaging his main chance to escape execution,“ the lawyers wrote.

“I don’t really know if Ryan was overworked or in over his head,” [James] Craig said... "but whatever the reason is for his lack of performance, it’s just another situation where the quality of justice you get is dependent on whether you have any money. That’s been such a theme for Dale Bishop, because his mother tried to have him taken for (psychiatric evaluation and treatment). They quoted her a price and she couldn’t possibly afford it. This was a situation that probably could have been avoided if somebody would have intervened in (Bishop’s) life.”

The attorneys contend that Bishop's illness prevented him from making a rational decision during the original sentencing. Back to the Free Press:

The brief goes on to say that Ryan failed to have Bishop evaluated although he knew Bishop was taking Lithium after doctors at Parchman diagnosed his illness. Lithium is prescribed almost exclusively to people suffering from bipolar disorder, the brief states. Instead, Ryan made the claim in his appeal that Bishop was mentally retarded, while attaching evidence indicating clearly that he was not.

“I think it’s close to criminal fraud to take the state’s money and handle a case like this,” Craig said.

Ryan's successor in the post, Glenn Swartzfager, is working with Bishop's lawyers in their appeal. In court papers, Swartzfeger called Ryan's work on the case "a sham," the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports.
Ryan also buried evidence of abuse suffered by Bishop as a child and youth, as the human rights organization Reprieve notes:

Reprieve volunteers assisting on the case gathered documents and witness statements which proved that Bishop suffered from a chronic mental illness (bipolar depressive disorder, formerly known as “manic depression”) and had undergone horrific trauma when he was young, which clearly affected his capacity to make rational decisions at trial. Bishop’s family noticed problems with his behavior and thinking when he was four years old.  His elementary school records from Texas have many references to these problems and to evaluations that showed that Dale Bishop needed serious help. When he was in middle school, his school counselor recommended a psychiatric consultation.  The psychiatric hospital Dale’s mother took him to advised immediate inpatient hospitalization, but Mrs. Bishop could not afford the high price of this care.  He was only diagnosed and treated for his mental illness when he got to death row.

Also, Dale Bishop’s father was an abusive alcoholic who beat his wife and children – including Dale Bishop – on a weekly basis.  The family was incredibly poor.  When Dale was an infant, the family had no running water, no indoor bathroom, and no money.

This is evidence that almost surely would have required a new trial, where Dale Bishop could present his case for a life sentence, giving a jury the background about his youth and illness, and letting them weigh up these facts alongside the fact that Dale Bishop was not the killer of Marcus Gentry.

The last-minute appeal also stresses the lack of evidence that the killing was premeditated, which is "one of the components required to impose the death penalty in Mississippi when a defendant is not the actual killer. Bishop’s co-defendant, Johnson, stated in an affidavit that the murder took place after a two-week drug binge and that they had been smoking marijuana, and injecting crystal meth and cocaine prior to the crime," as the Free Press reports. Johnson, who admitted killing Gentry, was given a life sentence at his trial, which was held after Bishop's conviction.

And so this is how "justice" is going to work in Mississippi next week. Dale Leo Bishop, a man riddled with genuine, even suicidal remorse over his part in a drug-addled murder, will be killed by the state next week. Meanwhile, the man who actually committed the murder will live out the rest of his natural life as a ward of that same state.

Reprieve notes:

Dale Bishop never had a real chance in life.  If the death penalty is going to be anything more than just a lottery, it’s not fair for some prisoners to lose appeals just because their State-paid lawyer discarded valuable, relevant evidence. We are shocked and sickened by what has happened in this case, and we hope others who look at the facts will feel the same.  Dale Bishop’s lawyers are preparing a Petition for Executive Clemency, to present to Governor Haley Barbour if the courts deny the new appeal.  We ask all those who are concerned about the justice system to write to the ask that he seriously consider, in this case, commuting Dale Bishop’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Or, at least, we ask the Governor to grant a temporary reprieve and ask the Parole Board to study the case and make a recommendation for or against a commutation to life imprisonment without parole.

The chance that Barbour, a long-time right-wing political hack and backroom fixer, will actually commute Bishop's sentence or even delay his killing are slim. For one thing, Bishop is white -- or "white trash" as he'd be called amongst Barbour's neo-plantation set -- and his death could help redress the statistical imbalance between the executions of black and white prisoners: an imbalance that always threatens to bring in some busybody judge to interfere with the politically popular operation of the death chamber. But a slim chance is better than none.

A group of Protestant and Catholic clergy in the state have joined the call to stop the execution, the Free Press reports:

“The death penalty feeds a mentality of revenge and vindication and further reduces the dignity and worth of human life,” said Fr. Jeremy Tobin of St. Moses the Black Priory in Raymond. “Executions teach us that killing people is OK, and in fact, should be celebrated,” he added. “Killing is immoral, it is not justified, it is anti-Christian. … Only non-violence can end the self-destruction of a blood-soaked world.”

Below are contact details for Haley Barbour:

Haley Barbour
Governor of Mississippi
P.O. Box 139
Jackson, MS 39205
Fax: + 1 601-359-3741
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reprieve also provides text for the letter that you can send or adapt here.