WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Janet Reno authorized prosecutors on Thursday to seek the death penalty against Unabomber suspect Theodore J. Kaczynski, jolting Kaczynski's family, which had conducted a yearlong campaign to spare the onetime mathematics professor's life.
"The family is devastated by this development," said attorney Anthony Bisceglie, who has represented the Kaczynski family since it provided authorities with information that led to Kaczynski's capture. The decision was a "terrible mistake," he said.
But families of several of the Unabomber's victims praised Reno's action. Bessie Dudley, mother of Hugh Scrutton, a computer store owner who died in a 1985 bomb blast behind his Sacramento computer store, said Reno pursued the right course.
Kaczynski "didn't hesitate to kill other people. I think turnabout is fair play. There's no use in keeping him around," Dudley said. "The thing that bothers me . . . is that he didn't know any of these people, just willy-nilly going around killing people. That bothers me."
For John Hauser, Reno's decision came on the 12th anniversary of a UC Berkeley explosion that cut short his ambition to fly in space and led to the loss of full use of his right arm and hand.
"It's a horrible thing to consider killing somebody, but it's a very horrible thing for somebody to send bombs that have killed three people," said Hauser, now an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado.
"In my case, I should by all rights be dead," he said. The blast "shot my Air Force Academy ring--and finger--across the room."
Saying he has not made up his mind about the death penalty, Hauser added he "will never get my hand, my arm, my flying career back, no matter what."
Kaczynski, 54, was arrested at his Montana cabin in April 1996, after a massive manhunt triggered by a string of bombings that began in 1978.
He was indicted in Sacramento on 10 counts of illegally transporting, mailing and using bombs. Besides Scrutton's death, he was charged in the 1995 slaying of lobbyist Gilbert Murray, president of the California Forestry Assn., and attacks that injured a UC San Francisco geneticist and a Yale University computer scientist.
Kaczynski also has been charged in New Jersey in the bombing death of advertising executive Thomas Mosser.
In documents filed in federal courts in Sacramento and Newark, N.J., Justice Department lawyers spelled out why they believe Kaczynski should be put to death if convicted in the deaths of Murray and Mosser--citing primarily the carefully premeditated nature of the crimes.
Scrutton's death was cited as an aggravating factor, but the government will not directly seek the death penalty for his killing because it occurred when the federal death penalty was on uncertain constitutional grounds.
Reno's decision is expected to influence every aspect of the trial, scheduled to begin in November in Sacramento.
"The family now are the ultimate hostile witnesses," said Laurie Levenson, associate dean of the Loyola University School of Law.
She said she couldn't speculate on whether the attempt to send Kaczynski to death row was part of a strategy to get his lawyers to enter into a plea bargain. "This may or may not be the squeeze play," she said.
But Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said a jury chosen to hear a death penalty case tends to be more pro-prosecution. In part that is because those who absolutely oppose the death penalty in all circumstances are automatically excluded.
On the other hand "when you are asking for the death penalty, jurors put your case under a microscope, and you almost have to meet a higher burden. Jurors don't want to vote for the death penalty unless they are close to 100% sure they have the right guy."
A secretary for Quin Denvir, Kaczynski's lawyer, said Denvir would have no comment.
In addition to the "substantial planning and premeditation" that went into the crimes, prosecutors asserted in their court filing that Kaczynski deserved execution because he has committed more than one murder, has a low potential for rehabilitation, lacks remorse and represents a continuing danger to the lives and safety of others.
"The defendant caused severe and irreparable harm to the families of three murder victims and caused life-altering injuries to the survivors of his acts of violence," the prosecutors said.
Sources familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, provided some elaboration on the department's reasoning.
One factor for the decision, they said, was the nature of some of the crimes Kaczynski is charged with. In the Mosser case, for example, the bomb explosion decapitated the victim in the kitchen of his New Jersey home in view of his family as he was preparing to take them Christmas shopping.