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California and the West | GEORGE SKELTON

Sparing Babbitt Might Save Lives Beyond His Own

May 03, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — There are many tragic figures in the murder case Gov. Gray Davis has just acted on, starting with the frail old woman who was savagely attacked and killed. Her family has suffered--four generations of it. The killer's life also has been a tragedy.

But the tragic figure who has gotten the least attention--and virtually no consideration for a noble deed--is the killer's brother, who handed him over to police believing he'd get psychiatric help.

Instead, the governor has decided that Manuel Pina Babbitt should be executed at San Quentin State Prison early Tuesday.

The brother, William Babbitt, an out-of-work state maintenance employee being treated for depression, tearfully told a clemency hearing last week that "I don't want Manny's blood on my hands."

Davis' response after denying clemency Friday: "Mr. Bill Babbitt's actions in turning in his brother, painful as they must have been, were an act of true citizenship. I feel badly that this decision will disappoint him. But I am not about to overturn the wisdom of the jury and nine [appeals] courts."

Disappoint! That hardly covers it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the death penalty. And Manny Babbitt's heinous crime would merit it ordinarily.

He broke into a tiny, 78-year-old woman's Sacramento apartment a week before Christmas in 1980, brutally beat her, robbed her and apparently tried to rape her. She died of a heart attack. He pleaded insanity and, in fact, did have a history of mental illness. But the jury wasn't swayed.

*

During appeals, his attorneys argued that the Vietnam vet had a combat flashback: After a booze and marijuana binge, Babbitt thought he was back at Khe Sanh, where shrapnel had pierced his skull during a bloody siege. He sought cover in the home of Leah Schendel, his victim. The 31-year-old killer was himself the victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. Babbitt previously had committed violent crimes. The night after killing Schendel, he tried to rape another woman. Clearly, he was one sick guy who should have been locked up in a mental institution.

And that's where I would send him permanently--or a prison cell--but not necessarily because he's a paranoid schizophrenic who has combat flashbacks.

I'd spare Babbitt's life because of his brother Bill--and because it might embolden others to turn over their killer siblings or sons. Bill Babbitt probably saved other people's lives by giving up his brother after being assured by police that Manny would get help.

During police interrogation of the suspect, with his brother present, Manny was told by an officer trying for a confession: "You know, you're not going to the gas chamber or anything like that." And: "We definitely want to see you get help. . . You got plenty of time to get your head straight, come out and blend in with society. . . . You're not going to spend the rest of your life in jail."

Babbitt never confessed because he couldn't remember the crime and still doesn't, his attorneys say.

"They [the police] did say some things that, in retrospect, they should not have," acknowledges the prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Kit Cleland. "But I don't know that they rose to the level of a promise."

*

"What kind of credibility am I going to have, for crying out loud?" asks Bill Babbitt. " 'Well, Uncle Bill, you were telling us to do the right thing and you went and did the right thing and look what happened!' "

Bill Babbitt set aside family loyalty and took a killer off the street. That sort of public favor should be encouraged. And it could be if people had some reasonable assurance they wouldn't be leading a loved one into the death chamber.

We reduce penalties in plea bargains, after all.

The FBI might still be looking for the Unabomber if his brother had not tipped agents. Ultimately, Theodore Kaczynski got life in prison after pleading guilty to three package-bomb killings. But for months, brother David Kaczynski feared an execution.

"You'd like to believe you know what's right and wrong, but in this situation you're absolutely torn in two," he says. "A family after making a heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching decision deserves consideration."

Says Bill Babbitt: "I just hope I have the strength to go through it if my brother is executed. I still feel I did the right thing. By Manny going to jail that night, somebody may have lived the next morning. Manny has told me I did the right thing."

We should be doing the right thing by Bill--while providing an incentive for others to follow his heroic example. In cases like this, the public would be better served by getting other killers off the street than by executing a depraved, sick man. Lock him away for keeps. Spare his brother.

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