Manuel Pina Babbitt, a decorated Vietnam veteran who murdered a Sacramento grandmother, was put to death by lethal injection early this morning, one day after turning 50 on death row.
Prison officials said the injection was delayed until they received word that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected without comment the condemned man’s eleventh-hour request for a stay of execution.
The execution took place at 12:29 a.m., 28 minutes later than scheduled. He was pronounced dead at 12:37 a.m.
Babbitt was sentenced to death for the 1980 murder and attempted rape of 78-year-old Leah Schendel--an attack he said he did not remember because it came during a post-traumatic stress flashback.
Babbitt spent his final hours in seclusion, reading poetry and meditating instead of speaking with a spiritual advisor, according to his attorney, Charles E. Patterson.
Patterson described Babbitt as “completely peaceful.”
Sixteen family members and friends had filed into the massive prison throughout the day to visit the condemned man for the last time.
As night fell and the execution neared, various members of the Babbitt entourage gathered near the prison gates, including childhood friend Patricia Tavares, who had traveled from Massachusetts, where “we don’t have the death penalty and I’m proud of it,” she said.
Gesturing from her wheelchair at the gathered family, Tavares said that “when you see these people, you’re seeing Manny. Manny’s not leaving us. . . . Manny just wants to go out in dignity, and that’s all we want--privacy and dignity.”
As the time ticked away, Babbitt’s legal options narrowed. Late Monday, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request to take his case to federal court, said state Public Defender Jessie Morris. With less than two hours to go before the execution, Babbitt’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier in the day, the state Supreme Court had denied a request that Babbitt’s execution be stayed while a hearing is held to decide whether the condemned man should have a new trial based on evidence his lawyers say has recently surfaced.
In a tersely worded ruling, Chief Justice Ronald M. George called defense arguments about racism in jury selection and excessive drinking by Babbitt’s first attorney “untimely” and “repetitious.” Only two of the seven justices voted for a stay of execution; one did not participate in the ruling.
Babbitt spent his day visiting with friends and family, waiting for word on court rulings, taking telephone calls and fasting. Instead of eating the traditional last meal, his attorneys said, he has asked that the money instead be donated to feed homeless veterans.
Beverly Lopes, Babbitt’s fifth-grade teacher, who traveled from Massachusetts to support Babbitt’s family, said she spent five hours with him and “he’s doing very well.
“I told him I was honored to be his teacher,” she recounted. “I blessed him on his birthday. . . . I told him to ‘hold your head up high and face the world, so when I go back to my classroom, I will go and hold my head up high.’ ”
Scores of protesters, mostly demonstrating against the death penalty, had gathered at the gates of San Quentin as the execution neared, including a small group of men who walk 25 miles from San Francisco each time an execution is scheduled.
Babbitt “served our country well,” said 65-year-old Lyle Grosjean of Santa Cruz, a Korean War-era veteran and one of the so-called “walkers.”
“The least we can do is not kill him,” Grosjean said.
Wearing a Purple Heart he earned during the Vietnam War, Larry Yepez brought his Marine dress uniform to the prison, hoping to leave it behind on the barricades “for Manny,” he said.
Yepez said he, too, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and believes that the country “turned its back” on soldiers like himself and Babbitt. The execution, he figures, is just another cold shoulder to Vietnam veterans.
A minority of voices in the crowd showed up to express support for the death penalty in general and Babbitt’s execution in particular, calling capital punishment “American justice.”
“Half those people in there should die,” said Kristine McClymonds, 20, of Petaluma, as she stood in front of the prison gates. Said her companion Aaron, who refused to give a last name, “It’s not about vengeance. It’s about what’s right.”
Earlier, Patterson described the condemned man as resigned to his fate and wanting “to die with dignity.” He said Babbitt viewed the execution as God’s way of calling him home.
While on death row, Babbitt was able to get to sleep “by listening to his heart beat,” Patterson said. “He tries to catch that last heartbeat before falling asleep. He believes that if he is executed, he will again listen to that last heartbeat.”
Babbitt became the seventh man--and the first African American--to be executed in the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Babbitt’s execution made 1999 only the second year since then that California has killed two men. Jaturun Siripongs, 43, of Garden Grove, was executed in February for a double murder he committed in 1981.
California has the most crowded death row in the nation, with 536 inmates waiting to die, and the pace of executions is increasing. Opponents of the death penalty expect at least one or two more executions in California before the millennium.
Late Friday, after Gov. Gray Davis denied Babbitt’s clemency petition, the condemned man’s attorneys asked the state Supreme Court for a stay of execution and a hearing on a new trial. Patterson argued in the legal filing that his client did not get a fair trial in 1982 because of the “racial animus and alcohol-induced ineptitude” of his attorney at the time.
Recently uncovered evidence shows that Babbitt’s trial attorney routinely drank three or four double vodkas at lunch during the trial, Patterson alleged in court documents. He described blacks in derogatory terms and did not object when prosecutors excused the only African Americans from the jury pool, the documents show.
Don Schendel, the dead woman’s son, decried what he called the defense’s “raising the race card” at this late date, more than 18 years after Schendel was killed in her Sacramento home.
“I don’t remember anyone speaking about the color of a person throughout this whole ordeal,” Schendel said. “It’s all subterfuge. It’s a shame.”
In the days and hours before Babbitt’s execution, Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit organization opposed to capital punishment, received an unusual number of calls from veterans and law enforcement officials supporting Babbitt, who claimed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his Vietnam War experience. Babbitt served at the siege of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
“They’re not the usual suspects that are always against the death penalty,” said Lindsey, who planned to lead a vigil outside San Quentin Monday night in protest of the execution.
On a foggy night just before Christmas in 1980, Manuel Babbitt was walking home along a Sacramento street after a day spent drinking and smoking marijuana. When he paused at an intersection, he said he saw the headlights of cars coming down a hill. They looked to him like the lights on enemy aircraft in Khe Sanh.
“I don’t know how I made it across,” he said in a clemency tape presented to Davis. “The next thing I remember was waking up on a lawn somewhere in Sacramento on one of those streets. That’s all I remember of that night.”
Babbitt sliced through the screen door of Leah Schendel’s small apartment with a knife and beat her so brutally that he shattered her dentures. She died of a heart attack as a result of the assault.
After reading about the murder and finding Schendel’s effects among Babbitt’s belongings, Babbitt’s brother, Bill, turned him in to the police, believing that he would receive treatment and would not be charged with a capital crime.
Patterson argued that Babbitt was in the middle of a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback during the assault, triggered by the headlights. Babbitt, he said, reverted to learned combat behavior: duck for cover and fight whoever gets in your way in the effort to survive. He contended that the disorder was not explored well enough at the original trial.
Kit Cleland, who prosecuted Babbitt in 1982, said that argument--along with the defense scenario explaining Babbitt’s behavior--were ridiculous.
“I cannot find any facts to support the claim they’re making,” Cleland said in a recent interview.
Babbitt received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Vietnam.
His case became a cause celebre among Vietnam War veterans, who wrote letters and signed petitions urging Davis to grant clemency. But Ernie Spencer, a Khe Sanh veteran who rallied his compatriots, said they likely would not protest in large numbers Monday night.
“Manny requested that, and I respect Manny,” said Spencer. “It’s a question of dignity.”
Times correspondent Sarah Yang contributed to this story.
An updated story with details on the final moments of Manuel Babbitt’s life is available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/babbitt