Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ted Kaczynski: The Unabomber

The Trial That Never Was

One of the longest book titles discusses the shortest trial ever. It's Michael Mello's The United States of America versus Theodore John Kaczynski: Ethics, Power and the Invention of the Unabomber. Author Mello - a former capital public defender — questions the approach Kaczynski's legal team took in defending their client. He correctly observes the defense team maneuvered their client into a position Kaczynski feared. Clearly, the prisoner wanted to base his defense on his philosophy rather than his sanity.

Defense Attorney, Tony Gallagher (AP)
Defense Attorney, Tony
Gallagher (AP)

But his lawyers realized the evidence against him was overwhelming, so they prioritized saving their client's life. The surest way to succeed was to question their client's sanity. Kaczynski certainly wanted no part of that, and initially refused to submit to psychological testing — in case they were right.

The defense team's second option was to run a two-way bet; they could ignore the sanity issue throughout the trial phase, but introduce it in the sentencing phase to avoid a death penalty. Their pragmatism was evident from the outset. Initially, the defense concentrated on eliminating damaging evidence from the trial, scheduled to begin November 12th 1997.

On March 4th 1997, the defense filed a motion to throw out all evidence seized from Kaczynski's cabin because, they claimed, the search warrant was only obtained when the FBI distorted comments from the Unabomber's relatives.

To support the claim, they presented a sworn declaration by brother David Kaczynski, who said he'd stated he only had suspicions his brother was the Unabomber — whereas the FBI made it appear he believed his brother was the perpetrator.

The defense filed a similar motion about a month later, claiming false and misleading information was given to a judge to obtain the same search warrant.

US District Judge Garland Burrell (AP)
US District Judge Garland
Burrell (AP)

On July 29th 1997, Judge Burrell agreed to a late challenge to the FBI's search of Kaczynski's cabin, with the exception of the defendant's journals — they would be allowed as evidence in the prosecution's case. This ruling would do little for the defense's case — Kaczynski's own writings were so damning an entire case could be built around them alone.

In the midst of many minor legal skirmishes, the Los Angeles Times reported on the FBI's slipshod scientific methods in their crime lab. Consequently, the defense considered using this information, even though the "Oklahoma Bombing" defense team had employed the same tactic to discount FBI evidence without success.

John Moss Federal Courthouse (AP)
John Moss Federal Courthouse

Finally, on November 12th 1997 the trial began with jury selection. Within a week, the defense filed papers and affidavits from many psychiatrists describing Kaczynski's mental illness and abhorrence of mental health practitioners. Clearly, they believed if they could sell the jury on their client's serious instability, he would probably escape the death penalty. Kaczynski had not given the team permission to play this card.

Lead prosecutor, Robert Cleary (AP)
Lead prosecutor, Robert
Cleary (AP)

The prosecution claimed Kaczynski's refusal to use a mental illness defense was a rational action, because he was only hostile to mental health professionals when they brought up his disease. Judge Burrell again tried to have Kaczynski agree to psychiatric testing and again Kaczynski refused, hurling his pen across a table in anger.

By January 5th 1998, it seemed everyone had agreed to use no psychological testing. But before opening arguments could begin, Kaczynski stopped the trial cold by asking to discuss an "important issue" with the judge regarding his attorneys. A three-hour closed meeting in Judge Burrell's chambers followed. In it, Kaczynski said he wanted to switch attorneys, and the jury was dismissed for two days while the court considered the request.

Following deliberation, the judge said Kaczynski's request to use celebrity lawyer Tony Serra was inappropriate, and the trial would proceed with the original defense team on January the 8th.

Again, Kaczynski stopped the trial by requesting permission to represent himself. Surprisingly, Judge Burrell agreed — with the proviso Kaczynski could prove his mental capability to do so. Forced to prove his mental competence, Kaczynski reluctantly agreed to examination by a mental health expert. On the same day, another revelation: Kaczynski had allegedly attempted to hang himself with his underwear in his cell the previous night.

A jail cell in Sacramento County (AP)
A jail cell in Sacramento County (AP)

On January 9th, Dr. Sally Johnson was assigned to examine Kaczynski for competency. Johnson, resident psychiatrist at the federal correctional facility in Butner, NC, previously examined celebrity criminals Jim Bakker and attempted Presidential assassin John Hinckley; she found each of them competent to stand trial.

Her in-depth report probably gives us the best available picture of Ted Kaczynski's private life.


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