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Of Looney Tunes and Court TV

January 07, 1998|PETER H. KING

SACRAMENTO — You know, a long time ago, being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody's crazy.

--Charles Manson, in a 1994 television interview

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The courtroom doors were locked. Butcher paper covered the small, rectangular windows. There would have been nothing to see anyway. Nobody was around. This was Tuesday, one day after the wheels had begun to wobble off the circus wagon known as the United States of America vs. Theodore John Kaczynski.

What transpired the day before by now has been well-documented. On the morning his trial was to open, the Unabomber defendant came into court, whipped out a handwritten statement and announced to the judge that he wanted "to revisit the issue of my relations with my attorneys. It's very important."

With that, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. hustled Kaczynski and his lawyers into chambers for a private session that would consume almost five hours, suspending the start of the nation's next great show trial and leaving the gallery of reporters and legal experts to fill in the blanks.

This would not be difficult. Kaczynski's main problem with his attorneys, court watchers agree, is that they believe he's crazy and want to prove it in court. Only this, they calculate, can save his life. Kaczynski disagrees, both with diagnosis and legal strategy. No small rift.

*

They are bound to make me out to be a sickie, and to ascribe to me motives of a sordid or "sick" type.

--From a journal found at Kaczynski's cabin

*

Yes, Ted, they tend to do that with hermits accused of seeking to change the world with random mail bombs. According to court documents, Kaczynski believes he's fit as a fiddle; maybe a little problem with sleeping nights, nothing more. Society, he argues, wants to brand him crazy because his ideas are so powerful and dangerous. Psychiatrists are part of the plot.

"His paranoia about psychiatrists," wrote Dr. David V. Foster, who attempted to examine Kaczynski for the defense, "made it very difficult to broach his psychiatric symptoms with him in a direct way. In fact, early on in our sessions, he looked me in the face and said, 'You are the enemy.' "

Foster and others--from interviews and reviews of Kaczynski's writings--conclude in court papers that the defendant has long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, perhaps complicated by what's called anosognosia syndrome: "Patients with anosognosia," wrote one defense expert, "usually believe they do not have the illness that their doctors tell them they have."

Thus, the defense maintains, Kaczynski's resistance to any suggestion he's mentally ill can be seen as a classic symptom of his insanity: If only he'd admit he's a little crazy, he might seem more sane. Not so, counters the government, which wants to kill Kaczynski. Prosecutors suggest the defendant wants to be seen as crazy, in order to cheat the executioner, and so he acts sane. He knows, they reason, that acting crazy would be easily unmasked as the ruse of a sane man seeking to dodge a death sentence.

Clear?

Thought not.

*

One of the few strategies left is to put Kaczynski on the stand and have him explain what he did and why he did it. You hope that a rational juror will say, "This person is nuts."

--A former prosecutor, commenting Monday after Kaczynski's revolt against his attorneys

*

The question of "what next" had the legal beagles barking here Tuesday. Most agreed that the judge has a few options, none good. Burrell can risk subsequent appeals and order Kaczynski to stick with present counsel, despite the not insignificant disagreement over his mental condition. He can bring in new lawyers, possibly forcing the case back to square one in terms of pretrial litigation and jury selection: a budget breaker.

He can let Kaczynski defend himself, a prospect certain to inject theatrical electricity into the proceedings. Or he can declare the defendant mentally incompetent for trial, a gutsy determination which, unfortunately, could be made only after Kaczynski spent time with the dread shrinks: a longshot.

A decision is expected Thursday. It seems certain, however, that somehow this show will go on. The government recently rejected a defense offer to plead Kaczynski guilty in exchange for a life sentence. It wants blood, for all the familiar reasons, but first formalities must be served. The defendant must be given his moment in court.

It's quite a bargain. The legal system pretends he's sane, so that it can kill him. The defendant plays along, gaining the kind of forum the Unabomber manifesto declared was worth killing for. Ratings soar, as Looney Tunes meets Court TV. And afterward, the audience can slink away from the twisted spectacle and ponder the insight of one Charles Manson: Nowadays, everybody's crazy.

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