Life Stories

Brad Fisher’s casual style belied his passionate concern

CorrespondentJanuary 21, 2014 

  • Rollin Bradshaw Fisher Jr.

    Born Feb. 7, 1950, in Worcester, Mass.

    Family: Raised in St. Louis, he moves to the Triangle in the late 1970s. Twice divorced, he has two children, son Shaw Fisher and daughter Kinsey Fisher.

    Education: Graduates cum laude from Harvard University in 1972, completing postgraduate work at Southern Illinois University, Ohio State and the University of Alabama, where he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1976.

    Career: From 1977 to 1979 he works as a director at the C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center in Butner, a state facility for troubled juveniles, also teaching as an adjunct professor of psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Beginning in 1980, he focuses his career on being an expert witness, specializing in capital punishment cases where he evaluates the potential danger of prisoners hoping to get off death row.

    Hobbies: Photography, guitar, carpentry, construction, and his car – a 1966 Ford mustang convertible.

    Dies Dec. 21, 2013, in Chapel Hill.

— When his cancer treatment stopped working, Brad Fisher was given the option of trying a new form of chemotherapy. His doctor told him that his life expectancy would remain the same whether or not he chose to undergo another treatment. But for Fisher, the decision to fight a little longer for his life came easily.

“He said, ‘It gives me a sense that I’m doing something,’ ” said his longtime friend David Parker.

That made sense to those who loved him. After a career focused on sparing people the finality of death row, of course Fisher would be likely to err on the side of life.

Fisher, who moved to Chapel Hill in the late 1970s, spent his later career testifying as an expert witness, and his specialty was capital punishment cases. With a doctorate in psychology, his expertise was sought by attorneys around the country whose clients were facing resentencing, praying for life in prison. His task was not to exonerate the innocent, but to spare the guilty a death sentence.

Fisher developed a way to test the likelihood of whether inmates would be violent during their incarceration, based on ordinary behaviors. It remains a highly respected litmus test, his family said. He was never one to beat his chest, nor was he an activist. But his career path showed his values.

Fisher died in December after a battle with kidney cancer. He was 63, the father of two teenagers to whom he was passionately devoted. He managed to keep the intensity of his profession from affecting the rest of his life.

Fisher was known for wearing old T-shirts and shorts while driving around in his beat-up ’66 Mustang, a car he always meant to restore to a more dignified state. He was also a Harvard-trained forensic psychologist who once sat across a table from sociopaths including one Ted Bundy.

He maintained his home in Chapel Hill, as well as one in the Virgin Islands (he helped build both), and was considered the definition of low-key – until he was in court, or even on a court. Parker remembers the way Fisher guarded him on the basketball court when they were roommates in graduate school. Never the most talented player, he was by far the most tenacious.

“He was very quiet and intensely competitive, and he loved confrontation,” Parker said. “It would be my misfortune many times that he would be guarding me.”

That he maintained a solid reputation for more than 30 years speaks to the professionalism with which he conducted his research and held his own during cross-examinations, said his brother Stephen Fisher of Chapel Hill. Discredited expert witnesses typically have short-lived careers.

“That’s what seemed to keep him inspired,” Stephen Fisher said.

Brad Fisher played a role in the case of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the man on whom the book “Dead Man Walking” and subsequent 1995 film adaptation were based. Fisher administered tests he had developed, to evaluate the potential danger Sonnier posed to a prison population.

Edith Georgi was just a few years into her law practice in Miami when she met Fisher. He was testifying that her client, Manuel Valle, a man who was convicted of killing a police officer and wounding another, would not be a dangerous inmate. Though they lost the appeal (Valle was executed in 2011 after 33 years on death row), it was the beginning of a long friendship.

Fisher became so close to Georgi and her family that eventually she had to stop using him as an expert witness. He was a regular guest at their home, inevitably making repairs and running errands during his stays.

When he wasn’t working, his favorite thing was to spend time with his two children. He never minded a house full of their friends – he knew the value of such relationships.

When Fisher moved to Chapel Hill in the late 1970s, it didn’t take long for two of his three siblings, and eventually his parents, to follow suit.

When David Parker’s mother died a few years ago, after the receiving line thinned out his father pointed across the lawn to a car. It was the old Mustang, and Fisher was perched atop the seats, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt. Parker had not told him about the funeral’s taking place in Wilmington, and yet there he was.

“I said, ‘Who invited you?’ He said, ‘I hear there’s a party after this,’ ” Parker recalled.

“He was always a very loyal friend to me, and we were friends from the moment we met. I miss him terribly.”

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