SACRAMENTO — Wading into the Unabomber case, President Clinton said Wednesday that he believes the charges against Theodore Kaczynski should be presented to a jury, possibly diminishing prospects that a plea bargain will short-circuit the trial's opening today.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Clinton said it is important that a jury be allowed to decide whether Kaczynski should die if convicted as the terrorist bomber suspected of killing three and injuring 29 during a 17-year crime rampage.
"Well, if he's guilty, he killed a lot of people deliberately," the president said on the program "All Things Considered."
"And therefore I think it's something that the jury should be able to consider."
Despite ongoing talks between the government and defense attorneys to end the case with a plea agreement, Clinton said he believes a trial is the appropriate resolution.
"This was a case where, based on what I know, I would consider it appropriate to present that to the jury," Clinton said.
After a two-week delay, jurors in the case are scheduled to hear opening statements today. Before the jury is seated, the trial judge will decide whether Kaczynski can act as his own lawyer.
Donald Heller, a former federal prosecutor who has been following the trial, said it was unusual for a president to publicize his personal opinions about an ongoing case.
"I find it offensive for the president of the United States to comment on a pending criminal case," said Heller, now a Sacramento defense attorney.
He added that the president's interview would make it difficult for federal prosecutors to conclude the case with a plea bargain.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno decided last spring to press for the death penalty in the case despite objections from Kaczynski's brother, David, a New York social worker who turned Kaczynski in to the FBI.
Kaczynski's arrest in April 1996 concluded an exhaustive manhunt. In Sacramento, he is charged in the deaths of two men and attacks that injured two others. He also faces separate charges in the bombing death of a New Jersey advertising executive.
Earlier Wednesday, a federal magistrate ordered the government to give Kaczynski's defense attorneys evidence of a network of tiny shacks the defendant may have built as hide-outs deep in the Montana woods.
Prosecutors also offered a new glimpse of Kaczynski's voluminous writings, revealing that the accused bomber said he planted booby-traps and buried ammunition in the wilderness near his mountain home.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Freccero said government investigators had "been all over the area with metal detectors" and had so far found nothing.
Still, Freccero said, the potential for such traps created "public safety concerns" that made the prosecution reluctant to share the location of shacks Kaczynski may have used.
But U.S. Magistrate Gregory G. Hollows didn't buy the argument. After a brief hearing, he told the prosecution to share with the defense photographs and locations of any shacks linked to Kaczynski, along with any documents related to them.
"It may mean nothing," Hollows said of the crude structures, but "it may mean something at this point."
In writings found in his home, Kaczynski mentioned two shacks, one of them an 8-by-8-foot log hut camouflaged with tree branches that he said he built "to have one place at least where I can still feel sure of privacy."
Proof that the shacks exist may aid defense attorneys by underscoring their contention that Kaczynski is a paranoid schizophrenic who believed he was under siege by a villainous industrial world.
Kaczynski's main residence was a cramped, one-room cabin lacking electricity and running water. Such living conditions--and Kaczynski's reclusive lifestyle--are expected to figure prominently in his defense.
But Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School, said the shacks might aid the prosecution as well. She said the government could use their existence as evidence that Kaczynski is "not a confused mentally ill person but someone who was fairly sophisticated and even had fallback plans."
Clinton's comments, made in a wide-ranging interview, come just a week after Gov. Pete Wilson urged federal officials not to cut any deals that would prevent Kaczynski from receiving the death penalty if convicted.
While unusual, Clinton's action is not unprecedented. During the trial of mass murderer Charles Manson, former President Richard Nixon expressed his opinion that the defendant was guilty, saying: "Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason."
The Clinton interview adds another remarkable element to a case that has been in a tailspin almost since it began. Kaczynski, 55, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of release.
But Clinton's remarks seemed to suggest he thinks Kaczynski might be a candidate for parole--which is not an option in this case.