Friday, May 7, 2010

Speaking Out in North Carolina

During these first two weeks of May, MVFHR board members Bill Babbitt and Marie Verzulli are speaking as part of a tour of Eastern North Carolina organized by Murder VIctims' Families for Reconciliation. Bill Babbitt is speaking together with David Kaczynski of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; the two men are telling their stories of turning in their brothers for murder. While David's brother, Ted Kaczynski -- the "Unabomber" -- was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Bill's brother, Manny Babbitt, was executed. The two men together make a powerful statement about the death penalty and particularly the effects of race and mental illness.

Here is some local news coverage of the events, and here is David Kaczynski's piece from the Times Union blog:

His Brother's Keeper
David Kaczynski
Technically, we’re not brothers, but Bill Babbitt calls my mom “Momma” and she in turn calls him her “fourth son” – after Ted and me and my other honorary brother, Gary Wright, who survived one of Ted’s bombs in 1987.

Regular readers of this blog know that in 1980 Bill Babbitt turned in his younger brother, Manny, to the Sacramento police department when he suspected him of a fatal assault against 79-year-old Leah Schendel. Manny – a mentally ill Vietnam War veteran – was strapped onto a gurney eighteen years later on his 50th birthday and executed by the state of California. Bill was there at San Quentin prison to witness Manny’s execution and to bid his brother goodbye.

I spend a lot of time and energy sharing my views on the death penalty with anyone who will listen. In fact, even before I turned in my brother to the FBI in 1996, I’d always opposed the death penalty for many of the same reasons that I reject violence generally (except in cases where it might be necessary as a last resort to defend against a violent aggressor). For ten days, Bill and I are touring the state of North Carolina to talk about issues related to the death penalty, including how mental illness and race affect the imposition of death sentences. North Carolina’s legislature is currently contemplating a ban on executing people who commit murder while seriously mentally ill. Last year they passed a racial justice act to counteract the undue influence of race on capital trials.

Few people realize that the experience that galvanized my opposition to the death penalty into a public campaign was not the outcome of Ted’s legal case. It was the outcome of Manny’s. I felt so badly for Bill and his mother, Josephine. I also was shocked by the political establishment’s indifference to the sacrifices made by Manny Babbitt, who enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and was nearly killed by a piece of shrapnel that penetrated his skull at the siege of Khe Sanh deep in the Vietnamese jungle.

I was also disturbed by the cold indifference to Bill Babbitt’s sacrifice. Talk to anyone in law enforcement these days and they will tell you how often they are frustrated and hampered in their investigation of serious crimes by reluctant witnesses who refuse to come forward or to cooperate with law enforcement when approached. During my recent visit to Rochester, I learned that a woman had been beaten to death in broad daylight in the presence of numerous witnesses who “saw nothing.” In the early 1960’s, the murder of Kitty Genovese in front of many witnesses who failed to summon the police made national news. Levels of public cooperation with law enforcement have, by most accounts, deteriorated since then.

Watching Bill hold up pictures of his brother and mother to the audience at a Baptist church in Raleigh last night reminded me why I agreed to leave my family for ten days to join Bill on this tour. The pictures were evocative: brother Manny as a young Marine in uniform; brother Manny again in uniform, but now as a corpse in his coffin after his execution in 1999. Bill’s mother - an image of timeless grief – with a shawl draped over her head after midnight on a cold San Francisco night outside the prison where her son was being executed. Bill’s hands were trembling. He had a facial tic. No doubt he was back there again. Still brave. Willing to relive that horrific night so that others might understand the injustice and the human costs of the death penalty. Once again making a personal and emotional sacrifice to protect people whose names he doesn’t know.

For a preview of a documentary featuring my “brothers” Bill Babbitt, Gary Wright and Bud Welch, visit

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