Killer’s brother speaks in Monterey at national death penalty conference.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Bill Babbitt turned in his brother for murder, and 19 years later watched him die in San Quentin’s death chamber.
In 1980, Bill’s brother, Manny Babbitt, broke into a Sacramento apartment and beat its occupant, Leah Schendel, 78. She died from a heart attack, and two years later a jury sentenced Manny Babbitt to death.
While in prison, Manny received a Purple Heart for his service as a marine in Vietnam. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was poor, African-American and dropped out of school in the seventh grade, at age 17. His first attorney took his money and then dropped the case, Bill says. His second, a court-appointed lawyer for the murder trial, didn’t call witnesses willing to discuss his client’s mental state, and later resigned from the state bar after pleading no contest to embezzling $50,000 from clients’ trusts funds.
Manny said repeatedly he didn’t remember attacking Schendel. He said he drank and took drugs before he beat her, and said lights in the fog that night reminded him of Vietnam. His appeals lawyers—along with letters of support from 600 other marines who, like Babbitt, survived the 77-day siege at Khe Sanh—maintained Babbitt attacked Schendel in a flashback.
Bill, seven years older than Manny, turned in his younger brother. “I didn’t want anybody else to die,” Bill says.
News reports said Schendel liked to play nickel slots in Reno. Bill, who had moved Manny from Providence, R.I., to his home in Sacramento shortly before the attack, found a piggy bank filled with nickels. He also found a lighter in Manny’s clothes, with the initials “L.S.”
“I could have just given him a bus ticket,” Bill says. “I realized Manny had blood on his hands. I knew.”
He called the police and went down to the station.
“They didn’t give me my 30 pieces of silver, but they did give me a baloney sandwich and a cup of coffee,” Bill says. He says the police assured him Manny would get psychological help, and that he wouldn’t receive the death penalty. Bill led the cops to Manny, who was at their sister’s house, playing with her two young children, helping them build tents with bed sheets and chairs. “I says, ‘Manny, let’s go play pool.’ I promised to give him a good whipping on the pool table.” The brothers walked outside. Bill says the police never drew their guns.
“I’m promising him, ‘It’s going to be all right,’ ” Bill remembers. “ ‘They know about your war in Vietnam; they know about your war in your head,’ ” he told Manny. “ ‘These guys are good guys. They’re going to help you.’ ”
“I says, ‘Brother, please forgive me.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I have already forgiven you.’ ”
This week, Bill comes to Monterey, where he’ll give the keynote address at the annual Capital Case Defense Seminar, a national symposium on the death penalty attended by some 1,500 lawyers. The four-day event is sponsored by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and California Public Defenders Association.
Gail Jones, CACJ’s acting director, says the conference is the largest of its kind in the nation. “We bring in expert speakers on specific topics, forensics, all different areas of the law as it pertains to capital crime,” she says.
And while the seminar, dubbed “Death Camp” by attendees, focuses on the legal aspects of the death penalty, this year’s program comes at a time when the politics of the issue are in the news. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the three-chemical cocktail used in nearly all lethal injections in the United States violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court isn’t expected to rule on the issue for months; until it does, executions in California and across the nation have been halted temporarily.
While the high court considers the lethal-injection method, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice debates the state’s enforcement of capital punishment—who receives the death penalty and how long the appeals process takes. At the commission’s first hearing on Jan. 10, judges and law professors said race, ethnicity and geography play a role in determining who is sentenced to die in California.
“It’s disproportionate and capricious,” Bill Babbitt says. “I believed in the death penalty until it came knocking on my door.”
“I watched him die,” Bill says. “I smiled at him. I was the only family member that went.
“I says, ‘Manny, I’m going to be there.’ He says, ‘Brother Billy, I’m not going to see you because I’m not opening my eyes. I’m going to meditate on Jesus.’ ”
Bill stood in the death chamber next to Manny’s pro-bono lawyer, Charles Patterson, near Manny’s feet. “I saw my brother lying there, and I remembered what he told me about Jesus and how he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison. I wanted to see my brother’s spirit rising through that Plexiglas, that steel and concrete, to the beautiful sky. I got so overwhelmed with emotions of hope. I was standing, watching Manny die, and my brother was just lying there taking his medicine, and I smiled as he died.”