March 13, 2003

Death Penalty Foes Give Talk

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Last night in the Myron Taylor Hall, four very different speakers spread the same message to a crowd of 75 law students: vengeance in the form of capital punishment does not bring peace. The event paired a victim of a pipe bomb made by the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski with the man who reported him to the authorities, his own brother, David Kaczynski. Bill Babbitt, the brother of a man executed in 1999 and Bud Welch, the father of a victim of the Oklahoma City Bombing also spoke.

“All the movies, all the media, presented [Ted Kaczynski’s trial] like there was this line down the courtroom,” said Gary Wright, who was hit with 200 pieces of shrapnel in February of 1997 by one of Kaczynski’s bombs. Wright said his entire life changed in a minute.

“The sheer number of people who are affected by an incident … is exponential,” he said. He added that everyone handles the event differently.

“You can’t carry that around,” Wright said. “We all have someone who we want to apologize for, but maybe not for something of the same magnitude.”

During the question and answer session, an audience member asked the panelists how their views of God were influenced by the cataclysmic events in their lives.

“I had my faith system pushed a lot and that’s why I’m open to so many,” he said.

David Kaczynski criticized the prosecution’s attempt to seek the death penalty despite his brother’s mentally illness.

“Defining an entire person by one act prevents us from looking at the harm done to the victims, the offenders family and the community,” he said.

Kaczynski described the personal ‘nightmare’ that he went through when he told the FBI that he doubted his brother’s innocence.

“I could’ve delivered my own brother to the executioner,” he said, though his brother’s life was spared and he will spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison.

Bill Babbitt talked about his brother, Manny Babbitt, who was executed in 1999 for the murder of Leah Schendel.

Manny Babbitt served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, winning several medals for bravery and was twice wounded, and came home haunted by his memories there. Manny Babbitt lived a strange life in his brother’s house in Sacramento, Calif.

“I wasn’t thinking too much about Manny,” Bill Babbitt said. “I was busy in Church praising the lord as my brother was going out living his Vietnam War experience and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

After encountering evidence of a crime, Bill Babbitt reported his brother to the police who promised he’d get the treatment he deserved and would be spared a death sentence — a promise the police are unable to keep. He said he felt cheated when his brother was sentenced to death by an all-white jury. During the trial the inexperienced defense attorney was drunk in the courtroom.

Babbitt criticized the politics behind the death penalty.

“The politicians are out there promising victims closure,” he said. “They tell people it’s good for you but it’s really good for them.”

Bud Welch told stories about his 23 year-old daughter, Julie, who was killed on April 19, 1995 in the Oklahoma City Bombing. At the time, she was using her foreign language skills in her first job after college to work as a Spanish translator at the Murrah Federal Building.

In the days following the crime, Welch said he saw no need for a trial at all. Now, he says he was “temporarily insane” for eight or nine months after April until one day he snapped out of it.

“My head was splitting from abusing alcohol the night before, and I realized I was stuck on April 19,1995,” he said.

He said his views changed slowly, and he realized that to kill Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would be an act of vengeance.

Jacques David grad, a first year law student, said the event was an eye-opening experience.

“I understand their criticisms of our justice system,” he said. “Lawyers at some times are not able to see things broadly, but it’s part of our training to focus very narrowly.”

The event was sponsored by the Cornell Death Penalty Project, which defends capital defendants, conducts research and provides resources to help the defense.

“I don’t believe that the death penalty furthers the interests of victims or the idea of a just society,” said Prof. Sheri Johnson, law.

Cornell law school students are currently working on at least eight capital cases throughout the south, investigating facts and writing briefs for the defense, according to Johnson.

Archived article by Peter Norlander

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