On May 4, 1999, the state of California executed Purple Heart veteran Manny Babbitt. Babbitt’s case was one of the first stories I covered as a journalist. Eight years later, his life and death seem more poignant than ever.
Close to midnight on Dec. 18, 1980, 31-year-old Manny Babbitt—high on marijuana and PCP—broke into the Sacramento home of Leah Schendel, a 78-year-old woman he did not know. He stripped the clothes off the lower half of her body, took a hot iron to her vagina, beat her to death and robbed her house.
Then, less than 24 hours later, Babbitt struck again. He grabbed a 60-year-old woman out of her car when she was on her way home. Babbitt dragged her into close-by bushes, knocked her unconscious, cracked her chest, stole her watch and wedding ring and fled. The woman, Mavis Wilson, survived.
In 1982, Manny Babbitt was sentenced to death, but his execution was still controversial.
While in prison at San Quentin, Babbitt received a Purple Heart for being wounded at the battle of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Seven hundred thirty Americans died there during a 77-day North Vietnamese siege. More than 2,500 U.S. troops were wounded. Fifteen thousand North Vietnamese died as well.
Babbitt, a Marine, survived Khe Sanh despite being hit by rocket shrapnel that opened up his skull. While going for help, he lost consciousness on an airstrip and was mistaken for dead. The operators of a helicopter carrying dead bodies loaded him onto a pile of corpses. Babbitt regained consciousness surrounded by severed limbs and heads and bloody bodies.
Supporters of Babbitt argued he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, meaning he constantly relived the horrors of his wartime experience.
They said the low fog that permeated Sacramento the night of Leah Schendel’s killing made street lights look like combat helicopters. The situation was exacerbated, they said, because Schendel was watching a Vietnam War movie.
Gary Dahlheimer had been a mechanic in Babbitt’s Marine unit. Dahlheimer told the Board of Prison Terms that post-traumatic stress disorder is a disease that, if left untreated, could cause someone to kill.
“I’m unable to sleep,” he said. “I’m unable to work. I’m unable to sleep with my wife. Because of my disassociative state I’ve nearly killed my wife on a number of occasions in my sleep.”
Dahlheimer, a large man in a plaid shirt, spoke in a wavering, quaking voice—more emotional in his presentation than even the condemned and the victims’ families. It was clearly still difficult for him to talk about the war. It was a difficult thing to watch—a former Marine with tears welling up in his eyes in public.
“I live every day listening to the screams in my head of the people who died at Khe Sanh,” Dahlheimer said. “I smell the blood. I smell the live blood in my nose every day. I smell the cordite. I smell all the rotten, stinking smell of Khe Sanh daily.”
How many other people are there like Babbitt who have been damaged by war and then punished by the state? More than you might think.
More than 1.5 million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, there are already echoes of Manny Babbitt in the soldiers that come home.
On May 21, 2006, an Army court-martial at Fort Lewis, Wash., sentenced 20-year-old Spc. Brandon Bare to life in prison for killing his 18-year-old wife, Nabila, with a meat cleaver after he returned from Iraq.
Bare turned himself in the day of the killing and signed a confession in the presence of Army detectives. His lawyers hoped his combat experience could be used as part of his defense.
Bare had been a machine gunner in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq and received a Purple Heart after being wounded in a grenade attack in Mosul in March 2005. He was soon sent home to recover from internal ear injuries and later was enrolled in an intensive psychiatric group therapy program. But at his court-martial at Fort Lewis, the judge ruled that Bare’s lawyers could not try to link the killing with any psychological or emotional problems he might have suffered as a result of his combat service and injuries in Iraq.
The judge said that making that connection might confuse the military jury about the question he said was at issue in the trial: whether Bare had formed a plan to kill his wife.
It was the same answer Babbitt got when his lawyers argued that his combat experience should be taken into account in his drive for clemency back in 1999.
At the time, California Gov. Gray Davis told me he would consider only one factor in his deliberations: “Is there evidence of innocence that has not been presented to a court? That is what I think my job is.”
“I’m not going to re-litigate the issue or question the wisdom of a jury or the many appellate courts that have heard this case,” Davis said.
Manny Babbitt had never argued his innocence, so on an early May morning he was strapped down on a gurney and given the three injections that ended his life.
The American justice system failed many Vietnam veterans. Here’s hoping Iraq war veterans fare better.
Aaron Glantz is an independent journalist and author of the book “How America Lost Iraq” (Tarcher/Penguin). His website is www.aaronglantz.com.