The Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture and the Foundations Sequence proudly presents:
Violence, the Death Penalty and Forgiveness:
A Conversation with David Kaczynski
Friday November 18th
Sarazen Student Union Maloney Great Room
David Kaczynski, Executive Director, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
In 1996 David Kaczynski turned his brother Theodore into the Federal Bureau of Investigation when he suspected him of being the Unabomber, responsible for a series of mail bombings that had killed three people and injured a dozen others over a 17-year period. David felt betrayed when the United States Justice Department sought Theodore's execution despite both his serious mental illness and the crucial role played by his family in solving the case. As a result of a 1998 plea agreement, Theodore Kaczynski is now serving a life sentence in federal prison. David has served as Executive Director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty since 2001.
The Death Penalty Up Close and Personal by David Kaczynski
"I never thought it would happen to my family." I often hear this remark when I speak with family members of murder victims. But it applies equally to me and to other family members of serious offenders. The shock wave from a violent act spreads out in all directions. It isn't possible to be prepared in advance. You may try to imagine how you would feel, but imagination never comes close to the crushing reality.
As I combed through the Unabomber's "manifesto" published in the Washington Post, it seemed increasingly likely that my brother could have written it. It was nightmarish to consider that my brother's mental illness and distorted thinking could have affected him so terribly. Simultaneously, Linda and I faced another kind of nightmare: what should we do? Say nothing and run the risk that my brother might attack others? Or alert the FBI knowing that the Unabomber would likely face execution?
In the end, Linda and I went to the authorities. We shared our suspicions with the FBI agents and helped them investigate and ultimately arrest my brother. Ironically, a 17-year manhunt (the most expensive criminal investigation in US history) was powerless to catch the Unabomber - or not until an anguished family came forward, willing to turn over a loved one because it recognized its responsibility to protect others.
The Kaczynski family's partnership with the Justice Department ended on the day of Ted's arrest. Until then, we had worked closely with law enforcement to save lives. After my brother's arrest, however, I watched in dismay and horror as the Justice Department quickly refocused its resources on the goal of taking a human life: my brother's. It didn't seem to concern prosecutors that my brother was mentally ill with schizophrenia, or that executing him would discourage other families from following our example in the future.
Since my brother's trial, and especially since becoming executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, I've tried to point out some lessons that can be learned from the Kaczynski case. There are many things wrong with the death penalty, as evidenced by the alarming number of wrongful convictions, the thinly concealed racial and class bias, the fact that we regularly execute juvenile offenders and people with serious mental illnesses. To most thinking people, these reasons are sufficient to reject a system for imposing ultimate punishment that operates with limited rationality and fairness. But in my view (an uncomfortably close and personal view) problems in the application of capital punishment are traceable to a deeper, underlying problem. It is a problem that appears whenever we attempt to excuse or justify violence.
The justice system focuses on the crime with little attention given to the offender as a human being. Nevertheless, by subtle or overt inferences, the justice system equates the condemned person with his or her criminal conduct. It's the crime that we deplore, yet it's the human being whom we put to death (as if one could be substituted for the other). Do we undo the crime by killing the criminal? Of course not. Family members of offenders are acutely aware of this confusion. When my mother and I provided background information on Ted to the authorities, we said, "We'll do everything in our power to help you catch the Unabomber, but please understand that this is our loved one: a disturbed person, not a monster." The agents, in turn, acknowledged that Ted was seriously mentally ill. But when it came to seeking the death penalty, the Justice Department did an about-face and hired a psychiatrist who was much criticized for his unorthodox views and prosecutorial bias. His job wasn't to discover the humanity in my brother, but instead to hide my brother's humanity so that the jury wouldn't be tempted to empathize.
In the end, my brother's life was spared, not because the Justice Department recognized its error, but because he had great lawyers (the kind of lawyers that few capital defendants ever see). He's now serving a life sentence in a federal prison. It's an outcome we, his family, can live with. For those affected on both sides, my brother's violence has changed all our lives forever. In different ways, we struggle to survive with the better part of our humanity intact.