Kaczynski Trial Ended Before Questions Could Be Answered

Plea agreement in Unabomber case leaves issues of competency and justice unresolved.

Theodore Kaczynski's terror campaign, which killed three people, injured another 28, and, for a period, affected millions of Americans by altering airport and post-office security, lasted nearly 20 years.

His trial and likely appeals looked destined to stretch nearly as long until the bearded defendant in his familiar cardigan sweater cut it all short by pleading guilty late last week in exchange for avoiding a possible death sentence.

Though the trial ended abruptly, it raised legal and social issues now the subject of lingering debate. Principally:

* Was justice served? The judge, defense, and prosecution, after consulting with victims or their families, agreed to the plea agreement. But was it right to preclude a jury from deciding if Mr. Kaczynski's crimes warranted the death penalty?

* Has the Justice Department, by accepting the plea in such a serious, high-profile case, signaled a greater willingness to back away from the death penalty in federal cases?

* Who controls the defendant's day in court? The accused or his lawyers?

* What is the level of competency required for a defendant to be allowed to act as his own courtroom lawyer? Should that standard be substantially different from the minimal requirement for competence to stand trial?

The Unabomber case, after a smooth start, stumbled over the legal issues raised by Kaczynski's demand that his lawyers not use mental impairment as part of his defense. When denied that request, the defendant asked to act as his own attorney. US District Court Judge Garland Burrell Jr. rejected that too, but both decisions planted seeds for appeal, say some legal scholars.

The Supreme Court in 1975 upheld a defendant's broad right to self-representation but didn't do much to clarify what standard of competency would be necessary to exercise that right. Judge Burrell denied Kaczynski's request on the grounds that it came too late and was an attempt to undermine the legal process. But the competency issue was highlighted when a prison psychiatrist said that while Kaczynski was competent to stand trial, he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Many experts say there should be a distinction between the two levels of competency, though there isn't one now.

Another legal issue raised was: Who controls the defendant's case? Defense lawyers commonly operate under established rules that grant the defendant only the right to decide whether to testify, have a jury, and what to plead. Kaczynski's defense team insisted on using the defendant's mental capacity as part of their defense, despite his objections.

"Is the defense lawyer a hired gun, or is he truly in charge?" asks Stanford University law professor Barbara Babcock, a former public defender in Washington. "This case has brought up that issue in a new way."

The plea bargain, which puts the admitted Unabomber in federal custody for the rest of his life with no possibility for parole, raises questions as well. "In accepting the plea agreement, the Justice Department could be signaling a greater willingness to let mental impairment weigh against full prosecution to the death penalty," says Rory Little, a Hastings College of Law professor and a former prosecutor and member of the Justice Department's death-penalty review committee. He says the diagnosis by the government's own psychiatrist that the defendant was ill was a key factor in the prosecution agreeing to the deal.

The bigger question of whether justice was served by putting Kaczynski away for life, but not seeking his death, could track closely with views of capital punishment. David Gelernter, the Yale University professor who lost part of his right hand in a 1993 bombing, told The New York Times his feelings about the plea agreement were mixed. And though the prosecution apparently had his blessing to go ahead with the deal, he also told the Times: "If we can't get a death penalty in a case like this, I think this is a moral catastrophe for the country."

Many legal experts believe the jury would not have returned a death penalty because of Kaczynski's mental state. And because of that, "This was the best resolution for the parties involved and the public as a whole," contends Mirna Raeder of the Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.

Not everyone agrees. California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) called the plea deal a "miscarriage of justice." He added in a statement: "I truly believe that for justice to have been served, a jury should have heard the evidence and been allowed to come to their own conclusion."

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