Crazy Is As Crazy Does

Why the Unabomber agreed to trade a guilty plea for a life sentence

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Surely the death penalty was meant for this: to extract retribution for a man whose limbs were mangled by an explosion as his mother watched through a window. For a father killed in his kitchen while opening a parcel that had nonchalantly been passed around by his family. For another man blown away by a mail bomb addressed to someone else, the work of a terrorist who would then scribble in his journal, "We have no regret blowing up the wrong guy." Lethal injection would seem just the prescription for a figure who could, in a Sacramento, Calif., courtroom amid his victims, hear his three murders and 23 bombing injuries recounted, as if by Gabriel on Judgment Day, and respond, in a confident, remorseless voice, "Guilty, your Honor."

Yet with those words, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, last week saved himself from the threat of execution. In a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, he accepted a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of appeal or release. Denied his belated request to defend himself in court, he abandoned his plan to argue that his 18-year killing spree--aimed mainly at those he considered technocrats, like computer scientists and business executives--was necessary to save an environment-despoiling America from itself. But he also gave up what some Justice Department officials and his victims feared was a chance that he might win a lesser sentence. This bargain, ironically, was sealed by fresh evidence of an ameliorating factor Kaczynski would never concede: that the self-styled scourge of a sick society was himself mentally ill.

Everyone has a point of pride, a trait held paramount in defining oneself. Some might have looks or will; Ted Kaczynski prized his brilliance. So it was in a sort of self-defense that he refused to allow his mind to be called into question, first by trying to fire his lawyers for planning a mental-defect defense, at least in the penalty phase of the trial. Kaczynski wanted to hire another lawyer, but Judge Garland Burrell Jr. scotched that idea as coming too late in the game.

Kaczynski then asked to represent himself. In order to prove his competence, he set aside his loathing of psychiatrists and allowed the court to appoint one to examine him. Kaczynski got more than he bargained for. The sessions with Dr. Sally Johnson went on for 20 hours. She found that he was indeed competent to represent himself. But she also found that he was a delusional paranoid schizophrenic.

When Judge Burrell last Thursday morning denied Kaczynski's request to represent himself, the defendant could see that his lawyers would go ahead with their defense, one that portrayed him as mentally ill. And he wouldn't stand for that. He now wanted a deal.

So did Justice Department officials, who had their own concerns. They were worried that Kaczynski's mental illness would be taken heavily into account by jurors considering whether to sentence him to death or to a lesser penalty. Prosecutors also fretted that Judge Burrell's decision not to let Kaczynski represent himself could be overturned on appeal. But they kept their game faces on; they arrived in court on Thursday with fresh haircuts, looking ready for trial.

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