By Tate Davis
That the sudden stunning conclusion to the Barry Bishop trial leaves troubling questions in its wake; there is very little doubt. Many following the turn of events seem to have more questions about the case that has been on the books for the past couple of years.
A successful Rule 29 Motion for Acquittal is rare. So rare that Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice took pains to record a long and thorough explanation of her reasoning for granting Bishop’s motion. Rice’s decision seemed a fitting end for a case with many peculiar twists.
Early on, the case included a controversy surrounding the Johnson County School Board’s November 2019 decision to enter a settlement with Bishop that allowed him to retire and receive a severance of some $20,000.
The settlement was advocated by the Board’s attorney, Chris McCarty, in a special session of the School Board in which McCarty warned, “If we don’t put this to bed, Mr. Bishop can file a suit,” a piece of advice seems to have proved correct.
With the presiding judge finding no reason to waste the jury’s time on deliberations, the Johnson County Schools may have dodged a legal bullet.
The criminal case is over, and the legal system has firmly spoken. “It’s just not here,” said Judge Rice, in whose eyes there was no compelling evidence that Bishop did anything wrong.
Many wondered who pushed this high-profile case and why it took almost three years to finally reach its ignoble ending? Others have asked: How did Johnson County taxpayers end up in a situation where they narrowly dodged being held responsible for wrongful termination and what certainly looked a lot like a wrongful prosecution?
In light of Bishop’s acquittal and the dearth of evidence presented at his trial, the fact that the auditors from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office weren’t the ones to initiate the request for TBI assistance now appears significant.
Defense attorney Caleb McDaniel seemed to think so. McDaniel challenged TBI Agent Fraley’s explanations for why it took the agency five months to formally open their investigation. But his questions didn’t stop there. Fraley testified about “talks” between auditors from the Comptroller’s office, agents at TBI, assistant District Attorneys General and “the District Attorney General himself.”
Jurors for the Bishop trial heard extensive questions about the “Investigative Reports” that Agent Fraley wrote summarizing his interviews. On December 13, he conducted a formal interview with school employee April Stout. At trial, Fraley talked about having other cases and priorities explaining the delays with uploading reports.
Surprisingly, the prosecution never offered any financial records from Bishop as evidence in a case charging a Class C felony for theft of property over $10,000. Witnesses from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office testified they never asked Bishop for records. Neither did Agent Fraley. Did the District Attorney’s office make such a request? The answer isn’t known. Whatever the situation, the State rested its case without presenting any banking documents in what the public had been led to believe was a financial crime case. In its opening statement, Assistant District Attorney General Leon Marshall told jurors he would show that Bishop was a “public servant” who abused his office by “double-dipping.” That statement seems to have fallen short of reality.
The questions that the joint investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller and TBI held reservations about the case against Bishop, or did the prosecution team walk into court having a good idea that the case was doomed and, if so, who refused to cut losses and drop the charge, now lingers.
There was extensive court discussion of the Corrective Action undertaken by the Johnson County Schools following the Fiscal-Year 2019 audit. The public should hope the agencies that pushed this case for almost three years will examine their need for similar reforms.