Sept. 28-Oct.4, 06
Brothers in arms
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Bill Babbitt, David Kaczynski to speak out about capital punishment
There are many parallels between the lives of Bill Babbitt and David Kaczynski, some mundane, some extraordinary. For example, both have wives named Linda. Both are committed activists who are opposed to the death penalty. Both had brothers who stood trial for murder.
But the penalty meted out by the state for their brothers differed greatly. May 4, 1999, the State of California executed Bill Babbitt’s brother, Manny, an African-American Vietnam war veteran who was mentally handicapped, as a punishment for the murder of Leah Schendel, who died of a heart attack when Manny Babbitt assaulted her.
By contrast, David Kaczynski’s brother, Ted, was among the most infamous criminals in recent memory. The so-called Unabomber was never executed, but was instead sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Kaczynski and Babbitt will appear together Monday, Oct. 2, at Hopps Memorial CME Church, 1110 S. State St., Syracuse for a program entitled “The Death Penalty: Up Close and Personal.” The program will begin at 7:30 p.m. Les Ulm of the Syracuse Chapter of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty helped organize the event. He hopes that seeing Babbitt and Kaczynski together on stage will help emphasize the racial and class dimensions many activists see in the application of the death penalty.
“The point we want to make is that the death penalty is fatally flawed,” Ulm said. “No amount of fine tuning will eliminate the discrimination aspect of the law. Prejudice and poverty always play a role.” Forty-two percent of the 3,500 people on death row in the U.S. are black and roughly 34 percent of all those executed since 1977 were black.
The friendship between Babbitt and Kaczynski emerged from the clemency campaign for Manny Babbitt. “Bill called me and said that he thought I might be the only person who could understand what he was going through,” Kaczynski said.
Manny Babbitt was exposed to the horrors of war firsthand. During the siege of Khe Sanh, a piece of shrapnel struck his head. When body collectors presumed him dead, he was carted off only to awaken atop the gathered remains of fellow Marines. He was then sent right back to the siege.
Manny Babbitt had never adapted to life after fighting in the Vietnam War, according to his brother. When he returned to the family’s home in Cape Cod, trouble dogged him and he was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1975. He subsequently moved to Northern California to join his brother and other family members.
Following the death of Leah Schendel, a 68-year-old grandmother, Bill Babbitt found a lighter marked “L.S.” among his brother’s belongings. It was later revealed that Manny Babbitt, wandering drunk throughout the streets of a Northern California town, had been startled by an oncoming vehicle when he charged into the nearest house, Schendel’s, and beat her. She died of a heart attack and, when the police came on the scene, they found that a leather strap had been looped around her ankle and her body had been covered by a mattress. Certain items from the home had been taken although many of the valuables had been left behind. In Vietnam, Marines typically looped dog tags around the ankle of a fallen comrade and covered the body with a blanket. Moreover, personal affects such as a lighter were frequently taken.
In hopes that his brother’s mental illness would preclude him from receiving the death penalty, Bill Babbitt contacted the authorities. According to Babbitt, the police were very sympathetic to him, saying that now Manny “would get the help he needs.”
“I never dreamed it would come to the death penalty,” Babbitt said. Instead, the state pressed for capital punishment in the case of Manny Babbitt. The result of the case spurred Bill Babbitt to act. “I participated in my brother’s murder,” Babbitt said. “The only thing that’s going to wash the blood off of these hands is abolition [of the death penalty].”
According to Babbitt, in order to convey the emotions involved in losing his brother to the death penalty, he must be able to retell the experience as if it had just happened. “I have to bring all this up just like it’s happening right now so that people can know how you feel,” he said. “People like me avoid closure and there can’t be any closure as long as the death penalty exists. I can’t move on. There are many other Manny Babbitts out there.”