A federal appeals court panel on Monday rejected Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski's bid for a new trial, ruling 2-1 that a trial judge had not coerced him into pleading guilty to three fatal bombings and had properly denied Kaczynski's request to represent himself.
Judges Pamela Ann Rymer and Melvin Brunetti of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Kaczynski's courtroom statements showed that he entered his plea voluntarily.
Kaczynski's appeal centered on his desire to represent himself so that his lawyers would not portray him as "a grotesque and repellent lunatic" in an attempt to mitigate his crimes and spare him from the death penalty.
"Kaczynski hypothesizes that (his lawyers) may have used mental-state evidence as a threat to pressure him into an unconditional plea bargain as a means of saving him from the risk of a death sentence, but admits that this is speculative and that no proof for it is possible," Rymer wrote for the majority.
But in dissent, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said that, during the federal trial, Judge Garland E. Burrell of Sacramento, Calif., had violated the precedent set by a 1975 Supreme Court ruling stating that a competent defendant has a constitutional right to represent himself under the Sixth Amendment.
A court-appointed psychiatrist had ruled Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated mathematician, competent. That left Burrell with a tough choice, Reinhardt wrote, because if no mental defense was offered on Kaczynski's behalf, the prospect of his being executed was strong.
Burrell said that if he permitted Kaczynski to represent himself, it "risks impugning the integrity of our criminal-justice system, since it would simply serve as a suicide forum for a criminal defendant."
In his dissent, Reinhardt took the unusual step of expressing empathy with Burrell's dilemma while disagreeing with him on the law: "It is not difficult to appreciate ... how the denial of Kaczynski's request for self-representation -- regardless of the unquestionable legitimacy of the request -- must have seemed the lesser evil."
Reinhardt, who frequently opposes death sentences, acknowledged the irony in his position. "I do not suggest that the result the majority reaches is unfair or unjust. It is neither," Reinhardt wrote.
He said he would have preferred to uphold the trial judge's ruling, but adhering to precedent required him to dissent.
In 1998, Kaczynski, formerly a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pleaded guilty to bombings that spanned nearly 20 years as part of what Reinhardt called "a bizarre ideological campaign of mail-bomb terror aimed at the 'industrial-technological system' and its principal adherents: 'computer scientists, geneticists, behavioral psychologists, and public-relations executives."
The bombs killed three people and injured 23 others, some severely.
Kaczynski, now 58, was captured by the FBI at a remote cabin in Montana in April 1996.
After his request to represent himself was denied, Kaczynski pleaded guilty to four counts of transporting explosives with intent to kill or injure and received four consecutive life sentences.
In return, the government agreed to forego seeking the death penalty against him.
Kaczynski is serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
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