Courts & Crime

Brothers of Unabomber, Manny Babbitt advocate for death penalty changes

RALEIGH — David Kaczynski was lost in a world of ignorance when his wife came to him almost 15 years ago and posed a question that would throw him into emotional turmoil and restless nights of soul-searching: Might his brother be the mysterious Unabomber?

Bill Babbitt was taken aback when his wife posed a similar kind of question to him: Did he know where his brother Manny, a mentally ill Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient, had gotten all the coins she had found stashed around their home?

Those probing questions pushed each man to do something few siblings would want to do — turn in his own brother to law enforcement officers, knowing their crimes could ultimately bring the death penalty.

Kaczynski and Babbitt, whose similar stories have very different endings, were in Raleigh on Wednesday hoping to help write a new chapter in this state's death penalty law.

They stood in front of the State Legislative Building with representatives of the state chapter of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and mental health reform advocates campaigning for legislation that would change the procedure for exempting defendants from the death penalty who had severe mental illness at the time of their crime. Maximum punishment would be life in prison without possibility for parole.

"It would really be a clear sign that people embrace fairness," Kaczynski said.

Kaczynski's brother, Ted, was the Unabomber convicted of killing three and injuring 23 people with a series of mail bombs from 1978 to 1995. Ted Kaczynski was a paranoid schizophrenic sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

Babbitt, a paranoid schizophrenic with post-traumatic stress disorder, was executed the day after his 50th birthday by the California prison system for robbing and killing Leah Schendel, 78, a woman who liked to play the nickel-slot machines. When Bill Babbitt turned his brother in, he said, officers wrongly assured him that Manny would not be subject to capital punishment.

"The system worked for my family," David Kaczynski said Wednesday. "It didn't work for Bill's family."

Though the cases played out in different parts of the country, the themes are universal, advocates for changes to North Carolina's death penalty law say. They highlight the disparities in capital case outcomes, particularly when there is evidence of mental illness.

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