By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Walt Weis|
As deranged Vietnam vet Manuel Babbitt slipped into oblivion Tuesday inside San Quentin’s death chamber, his execution meant different things to different people: a cold and futile night for protesters demonstrating outside the prison walls against the death penalty; the taste of justice for those across the state who saw another convicted killer finally meet his judgment day; a campaign promise kept for Governor Gray Davis, who rebuffed pleas from liberals and military men to spare Babbitt’s life.
But for Bonnie Bobit, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic from the South Bay, Babbitt’s taking the executioner’s needle meant little more than changing a brief line on Page 60 of her grim, gripping annual compendium, Death Row.
"Oh yeah, Manny’s been in the book quite a while," Bobit notes during a phone conversation just hours before the execution, her manner betraying just a hint of glee. "But our good governor is about to erase him from our pages."
In a nation obsessed with crime, in an Internet era of stats and facts about even the most mundane topics, Bobit seems to have found a winning combination. Sort of like the sports agate pages, but think Manson instead of McGwire.
The current edition of the book, published last year, offers a "complete roster" of all 3,392 inmates who are (or were) on death row, as well as a listing of the more than 400 inmates executed in the United States since 1976.
It’s a virtual Who’s Who of the condemned; brief bios, photographs and crime descriptions accompany many of the listings. The notorious are all accounted for, from Riverside serial killer William Lester Suff (convicted of 12 murders and suspected of 22 others) to "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez to "Black Widow" Judias Buenoano (who poisoned her husband, a son and a boyfriend).
As one flips through the pages, the mug shots of those waiting to die contrast with the slick cover of the book –- this issue features a hand lifting up a long, loaded syringe. Many of the inmates are smiling, some tauntingly, others in a bizarre "Hi, Mom!" style. One guy is wearing a neck brace, looking like an ad for a personal-injury lawyer. Others defiantly mad-dog the camera. A few appear to be crying.
Then there are the facts, cold, hard and broken down. Race, gender, age, manner of execution, jurisdiction of execution, last words, last meals and on and on. Methodical, unrelenting and, well, interesting.
Some of these convicts get just a single line; others get a several-hundred-word profile of crime and prosecution. Babbitt ranks somewhere in the middle, three lines noting that he was sentenced to die for the beating death of 78-year-old Leah Schendel.
Florida high school history teacher Bill Hayes is a main source of information behind the book. The former military police officer became fascinated with death row in the mid-1960s, and ended up a virtual encyclopedia of American capital punishment. Hayes says everyone from CNN to HBO to the Justice Department has consulted him.
Toss him a question on the topic, any question.
How many people are there on death row?
"As of last night, 3,544, with a good possibility of two executions in the next 24 hours."
How many people have been executed by firing squad?
"Three hundred and forty, plus another nine who were hung, then shot."
When was the last woman executed by firing squad?
"There wasn’t, at least not officially, dating back to the 1600s."
There’s hanging, electrocution, firing squad, gas and lethal injection; what other sanctioned forms of execution have been used in the United States?
"Gibbeting, pressing and the wheel. If you were gibbeted, they basically tied you up and left you to die. If you were pressed, they put a door on top of you and then piled stones on top of the door until you were crushed to death. People who got the wheel were strapped to a large barrel and stretched until they suffocated."
According to Hayes, gibbeting occurred up through the late 1700s and early 1800s, after the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishments. Then again, most of those gibbeted were slaves (i.e., extraconstitutional people), as well as a few whites who were involved in slave revolts.
"They wanted to set an example," Hayes explains.Death Rowturned out to be a perfect vehicle for Hayes’ research, though the annual, now heading into its ninth year, almost died faster than most death-row inmates.
Bobit says the periodical was something of a rough gem when she first discovered it two years ago. At the time, Bobit was editing Nails, a trade magazine for manicurists, at her father’s Torrance-based publishing house.
The firm had purchased Police magazine, bringing to 21 a roster of trade titles ranging from Automotive Fleet to Limousine and Chauffeur. Death Row came with the deal, thrown in perhaps more as an afterthought than a sweetener. No one at Bobit Publishing was sure what to do with the small novelty title.
"We really just fell into the book. It was supposed to be a circulation promo for our readership of law-enforcement agents, prosecutors and lawyers," Bobit says. "But no one was sure we should even keep it alive. It was a real dark horse. But I was intrigued with it, so I thought we’d give it one shot and see what happened."