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Retrial Rejected for Unabomber

Courts: Appellate panel rules that judge did not err by denying Theodore Kaczynski's bid to represent himself and that the former professor was not forced to plead guilty.

February 13, 2001|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

A federal appeals court panel on Monday rejected Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski's bid for a new trial, ruling 2 to 1 that a trial judge had not coerced him into pleading guilty to three fatal bombings and had properly denied Kaczynski's request to represent himself.

Judges Pamela Ann Rymer and Melvin Brunetti of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Kaczynski's courtroom statements showed that he entered his plea voluntarily.

Kaczynski's appeal centered on his desire to represent himself so that his lawyers would not portray him as "a grotesque and repellent lunatic" in an attempt to mitigate his crimes and spare him from the death penalty.

"Kaczynski hypothesizes that [his lawyers] may have used mental state evidence as a threat to pressure him into an unconditional plea bargain as a means of saving him from the risk of a death sentence, but admits that this is speculative and that no proof for it is possible," Rymer wrote for the majority.

But in dissent, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said that federal trial Judge Garland E. Burrell of Sacramento had violated a 1975 Supreme Court precedent, which held that a competent defendant has a constitutional right to represent himself under the 6th Amendment.

A court-appointed psychiatrist had ruled Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated mathematician, competent. That left Burrell with a tough choice, Reinhardt wrote, because if no mental defense was offered on Kaczynski's behalf the prospect of his being executed was strong. Burrell said that if he permitted Kaczynski to represent himself, it "risks impugning the integrity of our criminal justice system, since it would simply serve as a suicide forum for a criminal defendant."

In his dissent, Reinhardt took the unusual step of expressing empathy with Burrell's dilemma while disagreeing with him on the law: "It is not difficult to appreciate . . . how the denial of Kaczynski's request for self-representation--regardless of the unquestionable legitimacy of the request--must have seemed the lesser evil."

As he does periodically, Reinhardt described the issue in broad philosophical terms: "This case involves the right of a seriously disturbed individual to insist upon representing himself at trial, even when the end result is likely to be his execution."

Reinhardt, who frequently opposes death sentences, acknowledged the irony in his position. "I do not suggest that the result the majority reaches is unfair or unjust. It is neither," Reinhardt wrote. "I would prefer to uphold" the trial judge's ruling, but adhering to precedent required him to dissent in U.S. vs. Kaczynski, 99-16531.

In 1998, Kaczynski pleaded guilty to a rampage of bombings that spanned nearly 20 years as part of what Reinhardt called "a bizarre ideological campaign of mail bomb terror aimed at the 'industrial-technological system' and its principal adherents: computer scientists, geneticists, behavioral psychologists and public relations executives." The bombs killed three people and injured 23 others, some severely.

Kaczynski, 58, was captured by the FBI at a remote cabin in Montana in April 1996.

He was charged with a number of federal crimes and prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty against the former Berkeley professor who had isolated himself from society for years.

The year before Kaczynski was caught, the New York Times and the Washington Post published his 35,000-word manifesto, in which he decried the development of industrial society, saying it threatened modern man with many things "against which he is helpless," including nuclear accidents, war, invasion of privacy and carcinogens in food.

"In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we had to kill some people," Kaczynski wrote. He had been dubbed the Unabomber because some of his early targets were university professors.

Soon after attorneys Judy Clarke, Quin Denvir and Gary Sowards were appointed to represent him, Kaczynski clashed with them over the nature of his defense.

After a jury was selected, Kaczynski requested that he be allowed to represent himself, saying that he could not endure his attorneys basing their defense on his being mentally disturbed.

Initially, Burrell indicated that he was leaning in favor of Kaczynski's request, but the judge changed his mind. Burrell said the request was made in bad faith in an attempt to delay proceedings.

Immediately after this ruling, Kaczynski pleaded guilty to four counts of transporting explosives with intent to kill or injure and he received four consecutive life sentences. In return, the government agreed to forgo seeking the death penalty against him. Kaczynski is serving his sentence in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colo.

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