Peacework
April 2001



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Peacework Magazine

Patrica Watson, Editor

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Justifiable Homicide

Susannah Sheffer is writer-in-residence at Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, 2161 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140.

The manner of death is listed as justifiable homicide. That is, the box next to "homicide" on the death certificate is checked off, and the word "justifiable" is typed in above. Though there is no space on the form for it, clearly someone believes that a qualifier is necessary here.

Death Certificate

This is what a death certificate looks like after an execution. This is what the family members are issued, along with the body and whatever belongings are left behind. Bill Babbitt carries it with him, this certificate marking the death of his brother Manuel two years ago at California State Prison-San Quentin. He carries it as he carries the memory of Manny in his final days, shackled and unable to take the face of his 80-year-old mother in his hands. He carries it as he carries the burden of knowing that he was the one who turned his brother in to the police.

Bill had been trying to look out for his brother; he knew Manny had suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder since he came home from Vietnam. But he didn't understand how bad things had gotten, how firmly the demons had taken hold, until he realized, too late, that Manny was experiencing some kind of flashback the night he broke into the home of a 78-year-old woman and attacked her until her heart gave out. After a long night of thinking and praying, Bill went to the police because it felt like what he had to do ñ for the dead woman, for her family, for himself, for his brother, for the other people who might get hurt if he didn't speak up. The police said Manny wouldn't get the death penalty; they promised that he would get help for his mental illness. Bill never expected that all this would end in a death certificate from the state. He never expected it would end in another homicide.

After a murder, the grieving family wants to know the truth about what happened. Once Bill suspected the truth of Leah Schendel's murder, he couldn't keep it from her family, or from his own family, or from the police. In a sense, the state of California couldn't keep its truth hidden either: it admitted that Manny's death was a murder too. The physician filling out the certificate saw that "homicide" was the only box that made sense.

Bill tells me that for a while after Manny's execution, he thought of killing himself. He thought that act might be a way of making a statement. The statementñthat a terrible loss happened here, that a human being is gone, that a family suffers, that none of this should have happened the way it didñis a statement any family member of a murder victim wants to make. Bill turned his brother in because he didn't want any more violence. He didn't get that. He turned his brother in because he wanted help, and he didn't get that either. Bill's decision to live anyway, to make a statement with his life and his words and his actions rather than with more harm and more loss and more death, means we all have something to learn from him.

The family buried Manny on the Massachusetts coast, where he and Bill grew up helping their father catch lobsters and shellfish. Bill is back in Massachusetts for a visit on one of those surprising February days that hints of spring, and before he gets on the plane to return to California he stops to have some fresh oysters, one of the pleasures life has always offered him. They taste of home, they taste of life, and as I watch him tip the briny shells to his mouth I see that this is a man who has found a way to keep on.

But it isn't just the oysters that brought Bill back to Massachusetts. He came to testify against reinstatement of the death penalty, and he came at the invitation of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation--a group of people who have lost loved ones to murder and oppose the death penalty. They know that Bill and others like him are murder victims' family members too; they know that although no one will claim to have caused the death and no one will end up being punished for it, judicial executions nonetheless leave relatives who have to bury their dead and grieve for them.

  Stop State Killing banner with people
"Stop State Killing." Bill Babbitt (2nd from left), Bud Welch whose daughter was killed at Oklahoma City (holding photo of Manny Babbitt), Renny Cushing (MVFR, far right) at protest outside of San Quentin, November 2000. Photo: Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation
The state gave Bill Babbitt some truth when it gave him a certificate with "homicide" checked off, but it shrouded that truth with excuses when it added the typed-in qualifying word. Look into Bill's eyes and realize there is nothing that can qualify or excuse any kind of murder. Bill couldn't live with knowing what Manny had done; he had to try to step in and put a stop to it. Can we live with knowing what is done in the name of official business, in the name of judicial requirement? Bill travels, nowadays, wherever he is asked to go, so that he can speak of his shame, and his family's, and so that he can try to explain what the death penalty is actually like. It is up to the rest of us to speak of the shame of living in a country that methodically and dutifully plans to put people to death. It is up to the rest of us to speak back to the official words on the death certificate and say yes, it was murder, this act that took Manny Babbitt's life and keeps taking the lives of those who have been sentenced, yes execution is homicide but no, no, it is not justifiable.

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