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photo:Joe Putrock

Matters of Life and Death
By Rick Marshall

Ten years after identifying his brother as the Unabomber, David Kaczynski talks about what the experience cost him, and what it taught him about the criminal-justice system


David Kaczynski waited until the last possible day before traveling to his mother’s apartment. The FBI had given him three days to prepare his mother for their questions, and it wasn’t until the third, a Saturday morning in late March 1996, that he knocked on the door of her apartment in Scotia.

“When she opened the door, I told her, ‘Mom, I think you better sit down,’ ” says Kaczynski. “But when she saw the look on my face, she immediately started asking if anything was wrong with Ted.”

Once his mother was seated, David began talking. He didn’t know where to start, so he slowly presented everything he knew, piece by agonizing piece. He told her about the Unabomber and the people he had killed and injured over the preceding 18 years. He told her about the places the Unabomber had targeted with his bombs and the killer’s published manifesto that announced his hatred of technology. And then he talked to his mother about Ted, his brother and her eldest son. David reminded his mother about the places Ted had lived and worked over the years, and about his phobia of technology. He told her that her worst fears about Ted might pale in comparison to the truth.

“As I talked, she got quiet and was staring at me with this fixed look of horror,” Kaczynski says. “I knew she loved me and I knew she loved Ted, but I really didn’t know how my mother would handle all of this. I was afraid I might lose her love when I told her what I’d done. Not many relationships are ever tested this cruelly.”

He had informed the police about his suspicions several months before that meeting with his mother, and despite doing everything they could to rule Ted out as the Unabomber, the investigators had moved him to the top of their list of suspects. Now, he told his mother, the FBI wanted to speak to her.

He remembers his mother rising from her chair when he was finished and silently approaching him. David Kaczynski, who stands more than a foot taller than his mother, had been standing as he told her about all of the questions, decisions and steps he had taken that led up to this moment. Now she reached up, put her arms around his neck, pulled him close and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“She told me that she couldn’t imagine what I’d been going through,” he remembers. “And then she said the most comforting thing possible. She said she knew I loved Ted and I wouldn’t have done any of this unless I felt I had to.”

A few minutes later, David called the waiting FBI agents and told them his mother was ready for their questions.

Less than two weeks later, Ted was arrested.

The trial of Theodore Kaczynski, accused of murdering three people and injuring 29 others in one of the most notorious series of crimes in recent history, began in January 1997. Federal prosecutors sought the death penalty, despite a diagnosis of schizophrenia and earlier assurances from the FBI that David’s assistance in the investigation would reduce the chance of capital punishment. Ted agreed to a guilty plea on Jan. 22, 1998. He was sentenced that May to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Attitudes toward the death penal-ty are constantly shifting. Gov. George E. Pataki rode his support for the death penalty into office during the 1994 gubernatorial election, only to have nary a single execution to show for it when the death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional in 2002. A call by some in recent weeks for the return of capital punishment in the state received a far cooler reception from lawmakers than it had in 1995.

Thrust into his own confrontation with capital punishment, David Kaczynski has seen his relationship with the criminal-justice system shift dramatically in just a few years, from detached observer working at a local youth shelter to executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty.

“I remember hearing people talk about the death penalty being passed back in 1995,” says Kaczynski, who was working as an assistant director for Albany-based Equinox, Inc.’s shelter for runaway and homeless youth at the time.

When Kaczynski, who took Buddhist vows in the years following the trial, is given the chance to discuss the months leading up to and beyond his brother’s conviction without the constraints of a 30-second sound bite or a structured lecture, there’s a sense that the emotions of those days aren’t buried too far beneath the surface. Clasping his hands together on the table in front of him, he describes the period before he became intimately familiar with the ripple effect of violence and the inadequacies of the justice system as if it were something so unbelievable he must convince you that such a time was possible.

“I remember feeling sad about [the death-penalty legislation’s passage],” he remarks slowly, “but I also remember feeling pretty distanced from it, actually.”

The 1995 return of the death penalty to New York after a 16-year absence had prompted quite a bit of discussion around the shelter, he says, as many of his coworkers wondered whether they’d eventually see any of the troubled children they worked with on death row. As the frustrations resulting from little, if any, family support or educational opportunities occasionally boiled over into anger and violence among the shelter’s occupants, Kaczynski says he became familiar with the origins of crime—and how little they were affected by the death penalty’s presence.

“There was a real sense back then that people wanted this,” he says. “But I always felt like the legislators really didn’t understand what causes crime, being so much more distanced from it than regular people.”

Less than three weeks after New York welcomed capital punishment back, David found his separation from the criminal-justice system diminishing quickly as the “Unabomber Manifesto” appeared in the pages of the Sept. 19, 1995 New York Times and Washington Post.

His wife, Linda, first suspected a connection between the statements laid out in the manifesto and the assorted papers and letters his brother had written through the years. Ted had been estranged from the family for a long time, having left his teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley more than 20 years earlier without explanation.

A Harvard graduate (after being admitted at age 16) who also earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ted Kaczynski resigned from a short-lived teaching post at the University of California-Berkeley and spent nearly three decades living in a small house in Montana. He corresponded regularly with his mother and brother for several years, but the increasingly bizarre letters they received eventually petered out, says David. When the manifesto was published, Linda encouraged David to look for similarities between the text of the manifesto and the letters sent from the technophobic brother-in-law she had never met.

“As a counselor, I know all about denial—and that’s exactly what I went through at first,” says David. “It’s the last thing you want to believe.”

“So I read the manifesto, planning to tell Linda that Ted didn’t write it,” he remembers. But after seeing the writing style and arguments the writer was making, “I realized that, well, he actually might have written it.”

The next day, he went to the library to find more information about the bombings. Instead of finding information that could rule his brother out, he realized that his brother had some connection to or knowledge of every bombing location.

Ironically, the only evidence against his brother’s connection to the killings was an eyewitness description of the Unabomber that put him at three inches taller and 10 years younger than Ted. With all of the attention paid to the notorious eyewitness inaccuracies that have sent innocent people to prison, it was an eyewitness inaccuracy that almost kept the Unabomber from being caught.

Despite that small uncertainty, however, David says he knew there were enough connections to force a major turning point in his personal investigation. If he enlisted outside help, there would be no chance to turn back.

And, he remembers, the specter of the death penalty loomed large over the entire matter.

“I think it’s fair to say that at that point, I faced one of the most important contradictions of the death penalty,” he says, pausing for a moment and taking a deep breath. “In order to save lives, I knew that I would potentially have to sacrifice my brother’s life.”

“When people ask me how I made the choice to act on those suspicions, I tell them there’s really a formula to it,” he explains. “Everything you are as a person and everything you believe about yourself somehow pours into a mix, and at the end of the day you act, knowing that you’ll have to live with your decision for the rest of your life.”

After deciding to see their suspicions through, Kaczynski and his wife set out to make two determinations. First, they enlisted the help of a forensic analyst in comparing Ted’s letters with the bomber’s manifesto. The evaluation came back a few weeks later with the conclusion that there was a 60-percent chance the authors were the same person. At this point, he says, they decided to bring in a lawyer with experience in federal cases.

Meanwhile, a psychiatrist to whom they sent copies of Ted’s letters confirmed what David and his mother had feared all along: that Ted might be more than simply antisocial. The analyst concluded his letters showed signs of schizophrenia, a mental illness that severely affects an individual’s perception of reality.

“It was really only then that I realized my brother wasn’t just different, but that he was very ill,” says David. “And that’s what makes this the sort of thing that could happen to anybody—because mental illness knows no demographic or class boundaries.”

Every new piece of information created a new batch of dilemmas. He knew his brother wouldn’t voluntarily seek treatment, so Kaczynski’s hands were tied regarding his brother’s sickness. As far as the bombings were concerned, he was afraid that if he simply called the police, investigators would arrive on Ted’s doorstep and spark either a violent reception or, if his suspicions proved incorrect, the end of any communication the family had with him. Nevertheless, he began a cautious dialogue with the FBI through his lawyer.

Kaczynski sent several requests along with his initial offer of information. He asked that his mother be left out of the investigation until absolutely necessary, and when the time came for her questioning, that he be present. He also asked that his own identity as the source of any evidence be kept secret, so that he would be able to tell his brother why he had turned him in face-to-face, rather than through the distorted lens of the media. Last, he asked that the death penalty be taken off the table for prosecution. His brother was sick, he argued, and though he deserved to be put away for the rest of his life if he committed the crimes attributed to the Unabomber, justice shouldn’t require one brother to send another to his death.

While the first two requests were accepted, David says he quickly received word back on the third: no chance.

“They told me that’s not how the system works,” he explains. “If I had been turning myself in, they said it would have been fine, but not if I’m turning someone else in.”

And that, he says, was one of his first indications of the flaws plaguing the criminal-justice system. While Kaczynski was in discussion with the FBI about his brother, a notorious mafia hit man named Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who was connected to 19 murders, famously left the Witness Protection Program after serving a reduced sentence of five years for testifying against his boss, John Gotti.

“The irony was strong to me,” says David. “Here’s a brother coming forward to protect the public, and all he’s asking is, ‘Please, don’t kill my brother, he’s sick.’ But we couldn’t get a deal. Meanwhile, a mafia killer is a free man.”

A $1 million reward for information about the Unabomber was bringing more than 20,000 calls into the FBI each month, so in the weeks that followed that initial discussion with the FBI, David says his tip about his brother was given little more weight than any other call. It wasn’t until his mother became ill and he flew to Chicago to stay with her that a significant breakthrough in the case occurred—and the light dusting of attention his brother received quickly turned into an avalanche.

“For a while, it felt like we had this big secret we wanted to tell, but nobody would listen to us,” he says.

While staying at his mother’s home, he decided to take a look through her collection of memorabilia from Ted’s early years. He discovered a 23-page essay on the dangers of technology—a piece of evidence that eventually became the centerpiece of the FBI’s investigation.

With the agency’s efforts picking up speed, David says he and his wife began preparing for the inevitable repercussions of their involvement. He convinced his mother to move out of the family home in Chicago to an apartment near his home in Schenectady. As he helped her pack, the difficulty of keeping the investigation a secret became all too evident.

Concerned that his mother might dispose of an important piece of evidence while cleaning her house, he asked the FBI for advice on how to handle the situation.

“The agents told me not to worry about it, just make sure everything gets into the garbage and they would pick it up,” he says.

“So on Monday afternoon, Mom walks in and tells me that something weird has happened. Somebody stole our garbage.”

She insisted on calling the police, he says, because she was afraid someone might use her personal information to commit a crime.

“An hour later, there’s a uniformed cop in mom’s living room, taking a report from a little old lady who says her garbage has been stolen,” he laughs. “I did my best to keep quiet, but sometimes I wonder how he would have responded if I told him the FBI had taken our trash.”

In February, a month before he would have to knock on his mother’s door and share his secret, the FBI flew David to Washington, D.C. He spent the first day answering yet another barrage of questions. On the second day, he was brought into a room with a topographic map of Montana spread out on the table. He was asked to point out the location of his brother’s cabin. The moment felt like the physical culmination of all his activities thus far, he says.

“Even though there was no turning back at that point, I can’t tell you how painful it was to say, ‘He’s right there,’ ” says David, jabbing a finger in the air. “I felt like Judas.”

Kaczynski says he first learned of his brother’s arrest when he received a message at work from someone at CBS News. A phone call from his lawyer arrived a little while later. He says he watched the footage of his brother’s arrest—the now famous scene with lights piercing the night sky and Ted emerging from his cabin handcuffed and disheveled—while seated in front of his mother’s television.

“I remember thinking that our parents raised us with such dreams and ideals,” says David, “but now the name Kaczynski would mean murder and violence.”

As they contemplated how to avoid the media that had descended around their homes, a report on the evening news caught their attention.

“I assumed that the FBI kept their promise about not revealing my part in the investigation,” says David, “but suddenly there was Dan Rather, telling the world that Ted Kaczynski was fingered by his own brother.”

“So much of the personal stuff we had told the FBI, the talks we had that were like therapy sessions and the intimate details of our family history, it all appeared in The New York Times,” he says. “And because that’s the way he heard it, I’ve never had the opportunity to tell him my reasons in person.”

While the FBI vowed to find out who leaked the information to the media, the informant’s identity was never discovered.

When the trial began, David says his relationship with the government seemed to have undergone a drastic change. Where he once worked so closely with the FBI toward a common goal, now he felt as if he’d become the government’s adversary. Despite receiving assurances during the investigation that his assistance would factor into the proceedings and his brother would be given a fair trial, David says the high-profile nature of the trial caused prosecutors to pull out all the stops in their pursuit of a death sentence. At one point, the prosecution brought in Dr. Park Dietz, a well-known psychiatrist with a history of minimizing mental-illness factors and supporting the prosecution’s position—a move that David says he felt especially betrayed by.

“My thought was that they owed us truth and justice,” he says. “Maybe they didn’t owe us a no-death-penalty situation, but they owed us an honest effort at justice.”

While Ted was ruled competent for trial (“The standards for competency were much lower than I ever imagined,” recalls David), he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This diagnosis, along with David’s decision to go public with his story to every media outlet that would give him time, was behind the government’s sudden plea-bargain offer, believes David. Ted initially asked to fire his lawyers, then asked to represent himself and eventually made a suicide attempt before finally agreeing to a guilty plea after a year in court.

But it wasn’t until the trial was over, David says, that he had time to see the changes this experience had effected in his life.

“On the day that my brother’s plea bargain came through, one of the victims’ family members asked to meet with my mother and I,” he remembers. “It was the widow of someone Ted had killed. . . . We came into the room and said the only thing we could say: ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

“The widow said she might never see us again, but wanted to thank us for turning Ted in,” he says.

During this period, David also struck up a relationship with Gary Wright, who was injured by a bomb Ted had sent to a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wright turned out to be unexpectedly friendly and even offered to be a listening ear if David needed one. It was this ability for humans to overcome such horrible experiences that, says David, convinced him of the great good that could be accomplished by bringing their stories—and his own—into the public eye.

“When people have been through horrific experiences or suffered injustice . . . you’d think that they would be absolutely bitter,” he says, “but so often in situations as tragic as these, whether a loved one has been murdered or someone’s been wrongly imprisoned, you find that there is just this higher capacity of people to transcend the awful things they’ve been through.”

In the years that followed Ted’s trial, David continued in his role at Equinox, but found himself being called upon more and more often to attend events sponsored by victims’ groups and other organizations. At one point, he received a call from Bill Babbit, a Californian who also discovered that his brother was a murderer and turned him in. Unlike in David’s case, an execution date was about to be set for Bill’s brother, Manny.

“When I heard his story, it was unbelievable to me,” says David. “I wasn’t happy with how we were treated, but we got the best of the system compared to Bill.”

Manny, who served in the infamous Khe San battle in Vietnam, received a head injury during service and became homeless upon his return. The African- American veteran spent time at a notoriously savage mental institution and was eventually discharged into his brother’s care. When a local elderly woman was murdered, Bill suspected his unstable brother.

“We had adequate representation, we had a voice in the media,” says David of his trial experience. “Manny received a court-appointed attorney who never tried a criminal case before.”

“At one point during the jury selection,” says David, “Manny’s attorney told Bill that he had dismissed all of the potential African-American jurors because he was looking for educated, intelligent people.”

Manny was executed a few minutes after midnight the day after he turned 50.

David says the turning point in his life—the point at which he decided to turn his experiences and insight into a full-time occupation—was Manny’s funeral.

“I saw Bill there with his mom, and she was two years younger than my own mother and more than an inch taller,” he remembers. “Bill’s got his arm around her and she’s sobbing while Bill tries to hold her up.”

“And it hit me,” he continues, “that in a more just society, that would have been me and my mom.”

After that experience, Kaczynski says he threw himself into a schedule of speaking engagements, meetings with various victims groups and personal interactions with individuals affected by the death penalty and criminal justice system at a pace that he still can’t believe he was able to maintain.

“I realized that there was no getting my old life back,” he says. “But I also felt that if more people could be exposed to my story and stories like Bill’s, we could touch that fundamental decency in human beings.”

And he credits his unique position as someone who is credible to both victims and the wrongly imprisoned as the condition that led him to find a home with the NYADP in July 2001. He counts among the group’s achievements since then the passage of moratoriums against the death penalty in each of the state’s five largest cities. Various other groups have followed suit, from local parishes and town councils to the New York State Bar Association.

“I’m in an interesting position, to some extent,” he explains. “I have a credibility with some victims groups because they understand where my priorities and values are. I didn’t simply have a brother in a death-penalty trial whose life I wanted to save—I made a decision to save as many lives as possible.”

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