U is for Unabomber and Understanding

At least part of the basis for David Kaczynski’s death penalty antipathy is the sheer number of wrongful convictions, some of which have been documented in a report by the Innocence Project.


I became fascinated by the story of the Unabomber, not because of his heinous activities, but because 1) how he was captured, and 2) what happened afterward.

I don’t know how infamous the Unabomber was internationally. The story was fairly well known in the United States. A guy born Theodore John Kaczynski in Chicago, on 22 May 1942, was extremely inteligent and highly educated. Yet, by 1973, he became a recluse in a remote part of Montana, and between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 BOMBS to targets including UNiversities and Airlines (thus the term UNABOMB), killing three people and injuring 23.

“Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times on April 24, 1995 and promised ‘to desist from terrorism’ if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto. In his Industrial Society and Its Future, also called the “Unabomber Manifesto”, he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization.” The letter was eventually published in September 19 of that year, after approval of the FBI and the Justice Department.

Years of FBI investigation did not turn up the Unabomber. It was David Kaczynski, Ted’s younger brother by eight years, who “encouraged by his wife Linda…follow[ed] up on suspicions that Theodore was the Unabomber. David…progressively began to take the likelihood more seriously after reading the manifesto a week after it was published… David Kaczynski browsed through old family papers and found letters dating back to the 1970s written by Ted and sent to newspapers protesting the abuses of technology and which contained phrasing similar to what was found in the Unabomber Manifesto.”

David worked with the FBI, not only to stop his brother’s activities, but to try to save his brother’s life. Ted was arrested in Montana, and once he “was sure that he would be defending himself on national television, the court entered a plea agreement, under which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.”


But what happened to the soft-spoken David? “David had received assurance from the FBI that his identity as the informant would be kept secret, but his name was leaked to the media.” I recall vividly the television pictures of the reporters camped out in front of David and Linda’s home in Schenectady, NY (near Albany) for days. “In addition, [David] sought a guarantee from federal prosecutors that Ted would receive appropriate psychiatric evaluation and treatment, since he suffers from schizophrenia. The Justice Department’s subsequent active pursuit of the death penalty for Ted and Attorney General Janet Reno’s initial refusal to accept a plea bargain in exchange for a life sentence was seen as a betrayal by David and other Kaczynski family members… In 2001, David Kaczynski was named executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty” – since 2008, now known as New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Not incidently, David donated the $1 million reward money, less his expenses for lawyers and investigators, to families of his brother’s victims.

David sought out and became friends with Gary Wright, one of Ted’s victims in 1987, after Ted was detained in 1996. The explosion Wright experienced “severed nerves in {his] left arm and propelled more than 200 pieces of shrapnel into his body.” David Kaczynski and Wright have occasionally conducted speaking engagements on reconciliation together; I have seen them speaking together in Albany a few years ago, and it was a truly remarkable experience.

On that same program, Bill Babbitt spoke about having to turn in his brother, Manny, a wounded Vietnam veteran, only to have Manny subsequently executed. David writes that it was the outcome of Manny’s case, not Ted’s, that “galvanized [his] opposition to the death penalty into a public campaign.” Bill Babbitt calls David’s mom Wanda “Momma” and “she in turns calls him her ‘fourth son’ – after Ted and me and my other honorary brother, Gary Wright…”

The fourth speaker that night was Bud Welch. “In April 1995, Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the months after her death, Bud changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to taking a public stand against it.” He recognized that killing McVeigh, who was executed in 2001, would not bring back his beautiful daughter. Indeed, Bud reached out to Bill McVeigh, Timothy’s father, to show that Bud did not blame Bill. It was an extraordinary talk.

At least part of the basis for David Kaczynski’s death penalty antipathy is the sheer number of wrongful convictions, some of which have been documented in this report by the Innocence Project. Read about other death penalty issues, including the fate of some tried, convicted, yet innocent, here, including some people who confessed under duress.

So, David went from being a quiet social worker to a quiet, yet eloquent speaker for an issue in which he believes in fervently. You can read his blog here, and watch a video of David here.


ABC Wednesday