Coalition strives to end death penalty in Montana

Via the The Montana Catholic:
By Eric Connolly

To paraphrase David Kaczynski, part of the tragedy surrounding the death penalty is us.

The tragedy is that we still think killing people is the answer, said Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski. Known as the Unabomber and arrested in 1996 in Montana, Ted Kaczynski mailed bombs that killed three people and injured two dozen. He faced the death penalty, but is in prison for life.

His brother David spoke in Helena on Sunday, March 13, at the annual conference of the Montana Abolition Coalition, which is pressing for repeal of the death penalty in Montana. The Montana Catholic Conference is part of the coalition.

Speaking with David Kaczynski was Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny was executed in California 12 years ago for murder.

Kaczynski is executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Babbitt is on the board of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. They travel the country together as they try to eliminate capital punishment, one state at a time.

At the Helena conference, held two days before a Montana House committee was to consider repeal of capital punishment, participants wrote to legislators, got tips about effective citizen lobbying and listened as Kaczynski and Babbitt gave a talk titled “Two Brothers, Two Stories: Equality and the Death Penalty.”

David Kaczynski said he opposed capital punishment from a young age.

“There is no research that would demonstrate that there is any public benefit to the death penalty and yet, because of … very legitimate emotional responses we feel to heinous murders, we end up spending millions, in some case billions of dollars on a program that puts very few people to death,” said Kaczynski, who provided the information that led authorities to mentally ill Ted in Lincoln, Mont. Sometimes innocent people are executed, David Kaczynski said.

Bill Babbitt shows the Purple Heart that his brother, Manny Babbitt, received while on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California. (Montana Catholic/Eric Connolly photo)“It makes us scratch our heads and wonder why are we spending that amount of resources, that amount of emotional and spiritual energy, on a program of killing when we could invest those resources in programs that could prevent killing,” he said.

Babbitt spoke about brother Manny Babbitt, executed on May 4, 1999, at San Quentin State Prison in California for the death of an elderly woman during a burglary in 1980. Manny suffered paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and had received the Purple Heart for military service in Vietnam, Bill Babbitt said.

In an interview with The Montana Catholic, he spoke about the justice system’s imbalances in sending people to death row.

“Not everybody gets the death penalty who commits death-penalty-eligible murders in California, and there are many,” Babbitt said. “Manny was probably less than a fraction of 1 percent of people who are sentenced to death” and ultimately executed.

He said the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice found his brother should not have been executed. The California Senate created the commission in 2004 and it ceased operating in 2008. Commissioners were charged with studying and reviewing the administration of criminal justice, to determine the extent to which the process resulted in wrongful executions or wrongful convictions.

Commissioners found that of 13 people executed since 1977, Manny was one of three killed inappropriately, Bill Babbitt said. “Too late to go back now,” he said.

Also at the Montana Abolition Coalition Conference was Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, primary sponsor of the bill to repeal capital punishment.

“Now this time, we’re not going to let that judiciary committee (in the Montana House) kill this bill, are we?” Wanzenried asked the crowd, which gave a resounding “no” in response. Wanzenried then urged pushing for the bill’s passage by the full House. In the last legislative session two years ago, a repeal bill cleared the Senate but failed in the House.

Published in The Montana Catholic Online, Volume 27, No. 3, March 18, 2011