Death Row Ink

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 Row turned 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."

What happened was that Death Row was almost shuffled off to the publishing gallows after Bobit Publishing released its first version of the book last year. "We sold something like 2,000 copies and lost about $40,000," Bobit says. "The big distributors wouldn’t touch it. I figured that was pretty much all she wrote."

Still, Bobit had the nagging suspicion that the collection of the condemned could yet prove to be a hit. "I would throw dinner parties at my house and people would grab copies of it off the coffee table and they wouldn’t put it down," she says. "It would become the conversation piece of the night. I knew the consumer market for this book was out there, it was just a matter of reaching it."

Clemency for Death Row came by the middle of last year, as journalists and media outlets started referencing the book for stories on executions. The New York Times wrote it up in its Sunday magazine. Pay day came when Dan Rather used Bobit as a source and mentioned the book on the air.

"Things went bananas," she recalls. "Chains like Borders started calling."


Bobit took over Death Row on a full-time basis, and with 30,000 advance orders for the upcoming Death Row 2000, you might say that death becomes her.

"Raised Catholic, capital punishment goes totally against how I was taught," she says. "But I am totally into this now. It’s sort of become my life."

While she says she doesn’t want Death Row to become an advocate for either side in the capital-punishment debate, Bobit confirms she favors the death penalty for convicted killers. "The anti-death-penalty folks don’t like the annual, even though a lot of them use it, because I won’t advance their ‘boo hoo’ stories," she says. "But I work with everyone to put this together. Inmates, inmates’ families, victims’ families, support groups, you name it."

Hayes also confirms that he favors the death penalty, "except in cases where the inmate was convicted based on largely circumstantial evidence." By his own estimate, several hundred inmates on death row today fall under that category.

Both Bobit and Hayes have tried to keep a low profile, but Bobit reports that "nuts" have been sending her e-mail and calling her at the office for months, including death-penalty opponents threatening to kill her "to teach her a lesson" and middle-aged women seeking to contact condemned men.

"I get a ‘groupie’ call just about every day," she says. "A lot of them are middle-aged women, obviously lonely, who are trying to contact one inmate or another. It’s actually kind of sad."

Whatever its roots, the public fascination with the spectacle of state-sanctioned execution seems just as strong as in the days of the guillotine. Bobit says she is in negotiations with the producers of Cops to create a spinoff series centered around the cases of death-row inmates. Merchandising is just around the corner.

"Before long we’ll have the videos, T-shirts and trading cards," she laughs. "The potential here is endless."

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