of Life and Death
By Rick Marshall
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
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
While the first two requests were accepted, David says he
quickly received word back on the third: no chance.
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.
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
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.
agents told me not to worry about it, just make sure everything
gets into the garbage and they would pick it up,” he says.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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.’ ”
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.
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
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,
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.
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.”
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,
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”