A Calif. Chaplain Asks, Was Execution Needed?

SAN QUENTIN, Calif.—A month after the U.S. bishops issued their Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty, the state of California executed its second prisoner this year.

Manuel (Manny) Babbitt was executed by lethal injection in San Quentin State Prison on May 4, a day after his 50th birthday.

Father Denis McManus, chaplain at San Quentin, told the Register that Babbitt, who had been diagnosed insane and was receiving treatment, was “a gentle, loving, childish man, incapable of committing murder unless an attack from the disorder affected his mind.” He believes his death sentence should have been commuted to life imprisonment without parole.

Father McManus cited Pope John Paul II's repeated denunciation of capital punishment. In his January homily in St. Louis, the Holy Father stated: “Modern society has the means of protecting itself without denying criminals the chance to reform.”

The priest also believes that Babbitt was remorseful. So does Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who said, “He seemed to have a conscience and knew he had committed a crime.” Bishop Zavala met Babbitt when he organized a delegation of 11 clergy, women religious, and Catholic leaders who visited San Quentin's death row March 2.

A Terrible Crime

Babbitt was sentenced to death in 1982 after being convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances. In 1980, he robbed, beat and sexually assaulted 78-year-old Leah Schendel of Sacramento, who died from the crime-related stress. The following night, Babbitt robbed and beat another Sacramento woman. After his arrest, he did not deny committing the crimes, but said he had no memory of what happened.

Babbitt, a Catholic Vietnam War veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, incurred during the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, according to Los Angeles attorney Charles Patterson, who also fought during this siege and donated nearly 2,000 hours of his firm's time on Babbitt's behalf.

During the siege, Babbitt said he endured the deafening explosions from American B-52 bombers, ground artillery fire, and the stench of napalm and rotting corpses. An explosion once knocked him unconscious after shrapnel from a rocket ripped into his thumb and scalp, he claimed.

After his discharge from the Marines in 1970, he began using drugs and alcohol, served prison sentences for burglary and armed robbery, and was diagnosed as mentally ill in a Rhode Island hospital for the criminally insane.

He later went to live with his brother Bill in Sacramento, where he exhibited bizarre, childish behavior, such as riding a bicycle with flattened beer cans between the spokes, creating a clacking sound.

Patterson believes Babbitt had a “dissociative episode” — reliving combat in Vietnam — when he killed Schendel. The episode was triggered by the foggy night, taking alcohol and marijuana with an Asian, and headlights on cars that resembled aircraft landing at Khe Sanh, Patterson said.

Babbitt's brother linked Manny to the murder and called the police after discovering in his coat pockets two watches and a cigarette lighter with Schendel's initials engraved on it.

Life on Death Row

The Catholics who knew him wished they had been able to spend more time with Babbitt, to help him reconcile with God before his death.

Conversions often occur among the prison's some 500 death row inmates, one-third of whom are Catholics, says Father McManus, the chaplain. “Many have turned to God; some are very devout; nearly all of them read from the Bible,” and some participate in Bible studies. Some Catholics receive the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist in their cells and about 20 attend Mass monthly, he adds.

Deacon Dennis Merino, a member of Bishop Zavala's delegation and chaplain at the California State Prison in Sacramento, says, “Where there is life, there is a possibility of redemption. If we kill them [prisoners], we deprive them of that opportunity.” He was told of a skinhead at the penitentiary who attended Mass on Easter Sunday and said, “‘Jesus will not let me alone.’”

Father McManus says that executing prisoners “causes immense pain to the criminals' families, especially in the last few weeks of their lives.”

Bishop Zavala describes his visit to death row as “a cold, sobering experience. I saw the heinous nature of their crimes and the human beings behind the crimes. … Are we not more than the worst act we have committed?”

Sister Suzanne Jabro, who also visited death row with the leadership delegation, described the octagonal green-walled execution chamber, about 7 1/2 feet in diameter, lined with porthole like windows. The chamber contains a table where the prisoner is strapped and can be turned to face invited family members.

“I felt like I was in Auschwitz,” says the nun, who directs the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Office of Detention Ministry. “You could feel the evil.”

Many death penalty defenders, of course, see things very differently.

One such defender is Ralph Malaker of St. Patrick's Parish in San Diego. Malaker, who describes himself as a concerned pro-life member of his parish, says that executing a convicted murderer should not be compared with killing innocent people at Auschwitz.

“[Murderers] make a choice about taking the life of someone, knowing the consequences could be the death penalty. God knows that sometimes the best thing for us is to experience the consequences of our actions, even if this means death by execution,” he says. “And instead of abolishing the death penalty, executions should be justified on a case-by-case basis.”

In recent years the Church has come out more strongly against the death penalty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says public authority should limit itself to “bloodless means” if these are “sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons” (No. 2267).

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the Pope writes: “Today … as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases [where execution is needed] are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (No. 56).

The U.S. bishops also suggest that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory manner, as poor convicts and minorities are more likely to be condemned to death.

Babbitt, for example, was born to West African immigrants in a poor section of Wareham, Mass. His ramshackle house was heated by wood and insulated with newspaper, with no toilet or hot water. His father drank heavily and beat his mentally ill mother and the five children, leaving welts on their faces and arms, according to Manny's brother Bill. During winter, the Babbitt children slept under piles of coats since the family could not afford sheets and blankets.

Manny's intelligence was average, but he repeated the first, second, and fifth grades. As a muscular teen-aged fifth-grader, he patrolled the playground to prevent bullies from picking on the children.

At age 12, Manny was struck by a car as he was riding a bicycle. He was hurtled onto the pavement and suffered broken shin bones, deep cuts and a severe concussion — wounds that left Manny with “no judgment,” according to his brother Stephen.

Manny quit school at age 17 with a sixth-grade education and worked in a shoe factory. In 1967, he joined the Marines and was assigned to an anti-tank battalion at Khe Sanh. In San Quentin, he continued to have flashbacks of the Khe Sanh siege as he awaited his fate.

He was one of some 3,500 death row prisoners nationwide — a number the bishops call “deeply troubling.” In their Good Friday appeal, they decry the increasing rate of executions, with more than 500 taking place since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

“We urge all people of good will, particularly Catholics, to work to end the use of capital punishment,” they state.

Bishop Zavala says, “We have to find another way of dealing with our violent society — not with violence [of executions]. My faith tells me there is another answer.”

Joyce Carr writes from La Mesa, California.