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California and the West

Reprieve Urged for Condemned Killer

Clemency: Relatives and fellow Marine veterans join the pleas to Gov. Davis, a Vietnam veteran, on behalf of Manuel Babbitt, scheduled to be executed next week.

April 27, 1999|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — With condemned killer Manuel Babbitt's execution set for a week from today, his family members and advocates tearfully pleaded Monday for a state board to recommend that Gov. Gray Davis set aside the Vietnam veteran's death sentence.

Family members of the victim, Leah Schendel, emotionally recalled the elderly woman Babbitt killed more than 18 years ago, and asked for final justice.

"Eighteen years of tears," Donald Schendel, one of Leah Schendel's children, said as he urged the state Board of Prison Terms to recommend against Babbitt's plea for clemency.

However, Babbitt's defense team is mounting an extraordinary campaign for clemency, which was on display Monday at a hearing before the board. Pro-clemency speakers included former Marines, Babbitt's family, African American leaders, and the brother of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

Their campaign is aimed at persuading Davis, a Vietnam veteran who has courted veterans during his political career, to grant clemency to Babbitt, 49, a man with a history of severe mental illness who degenerated after his return from Vietnam in 1970. Babbitt's lawyers contend that Babbitt was having a combat flashback when he beat Leach Schendel to death in December 1980.

"If there is to be clemency for anyone, it should be granted here," said attorney Charles Patterson, a Khe Sahn veteran, who is taking time from his practice at the law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in Los Angeles to defend his fellow Marine.

Leah Schendel's family was every bit as passionate Monday. "Clemency must be denied, just as the remainder of Leah Schendel's life was denied," said John Rizzotti, one of the victim's seven grandchildren.

Davis, a death penalty proponent, will review the six-member Board of Prison Terms' confidential recommendation and reach a decision later this week. If Davis commutes the death sentence, Babbitt will face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In recent comments, Davis emphasized the hard line he is taking on criminal justice issues. However, he stopped short of foreclosing clemency for Babbitt.

"I have great respect for anyone that served their country, but I feel very strongly that nobody should take another person's life," Davis said earlier this month.

At the hearing, which lasted more than four hours, Babbitt's lawyers played to Davis' Vietnam experiences, introducing several middle-age men, wearing Marine Corps pins and war medals.

Veterans told of serving with Babbitt at what has been called the worst battle of the war, the 77-day siege at Khe Sahn in 1968. Each made a point of saying he supports capital punishment, but not for their Marine Corps brother.

Harry Shorstein was a Marine Corps captain at Khe Sahn. Now, he is the elected county prosecutor in Jacksonville, Fla., and told of sending people to Florida's death row.

"My decision is not a popular one," Shorstein said, explaining why he came to Babbitt's defense. "It is the right one."

Shorstein cited a claim by Babbitt's defense lawyers that they have evidence that Babbitt's trial lawyer would drink heavily at lunch. "How in this country could we give a hero a drunk for an attorney?" Shorstein asked.

Former Detroit Police Officer Lynn Dornan recalled how Babbitt saved his life at Khe Sahn by pulling him into a bunker as North Vietnamese shelled the airstrip.

"I panicked and started running the wrong way," Dornan recalled. Dornan said he gained peace as shells exploded that day only after he came to the realization that he was going to die. "I don't think I've ever been as scared."

During the hearing, Babbitt's defenders sat on one side of the large auditorium a few blocks from the Capitol. Leah Schendel's family and the prosecutors sat at the other. Several spoke to one another across the room.

"It wasn't him that hurt you. It was his disease," Desiree Babbitt, one of Babbitt's daughters, told Schendel's family. Desiree, 20, talked of her own descent into mental illness, and how such maladies can run in families.

Babbitt, who had a seventh-grade education, enlisted in the Marines in 1967 with the assistance of a recruiter who helped him pass the entrance test. He was assigned to Khe Sahn in late 1967, shortly before the North Vietnamese Army launched an all-out assault on the airstrip.

In the siege, shrapnel pierced his skull. He was patched up and served a second combat tour. Last year, in a ceremony orchestrated by his lawyers, the Marines awarded Babbitt a Purple Heart, the first such award ever given to a death row inmate.

Once back in the United States, Babbitt spiraled down, getting discharged from the Marines for leaving his post, then committing a series of increasingly more serious crimes, including burglary, robbery and sexual assault.

In the 1970s, he was incarcerated at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, where he attempted suicide three times.

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