Theodore John Kaczynski offered in recent weeks to plead guilty to Unabomber charges in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, a participant in high-level Justice Department proceedings said Sunday.
But the plea offer was rejected by Attorney General Janet Reno’s death-penalty review committee after extensive presentations by Kaczynski’s defense team, said the participant, who described the behind-the-scenes maneuvering on condition of anonymity.
The committee is headed by John Keeney, the acting chief of the Criminal Division and a career Justice Department lawyer. The Justice Department has declined to name the other committee members, although they are known to include other members of the Criminal Division and some federal prosecutors from around the United States.
In reviewing whether to seek the death penalty, the committee interviews victims and their families. In the Unabomber case, its members interviewed some of the victims and, under Reno’s guidelines, have been obliged to hear appeals from Kaczynski’s family and lawyer.
Court filings also confirmed this weekend that Kaczynski had been engaged in a bitter struggle with his lawyers over trial strategy in a series of unusual closed-door meetings with the judge beginning on Dec. 19. His defense lawyers have said they will portray him as mentally ill as a way to try to avoid the death penalty. This weekend, there were signs that the rift has been repaired and that Kaczynski is working with his lawyers again.
Kaczynski was willing to accept a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for the string of bombings that began in 1978 and left three people dead and 28 others injured. Such a deal would have enabled him to avoid hearing himself described as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic at the trial which is scheduled to begin Jan. 5.
The issue of Kaczynski’s mental health has been at the heart of his dispute with his lawyers, and it appears now that the defense lawyers will continue to press their claims that Kaczynski is suffering from mental illness.
Quin Denvir, his chief defense lawyer, declined to comment Sunday on the plea offer, but he said that any problems between Kaczynski and his lawyers had been resolved.
“We are proceeding forward,” Denvir said. “He’s cooperating with us and we’re getting ready for trial.”
When the federal judge in the case, Garland Burrell Jr., met with Kaczynski and his lawyers on Dec. 19, there was speculation about a rift on the defense strategy. The court filings at the weekend confirmed for the first time that the defendant was struggling with his lawyers.
The judge said in one document he filed late Friday that the series of closed-door meetings with the defense but without prosecutors or the public began because he had received letters “written by Kaczynski discussing his concerns with appointed counsel representation.”
Denvir and Kaczynski’s other chief lawyer, Judy Clarke, are federal defenders. The court filing showed that they sent Kaczynski’s letters to the judge on Dec. 18 asking for a closed hearing without prosecutors present.
In a partial transcript of one of those meetings, Denvir said the disagreement with Kaczynski was “obviously a major problem” that “had a long history.” The transcript included only those portions of the discussion that Burrell said did not violate Kaczynski’s attorney-client privilege.
“We are all very unhappy and sad to be in this position, but we are in this position,” Denvir said in the closed session. He also said Kaczynski had written the letters expressing his concerns about his lawyers some time before the defense sent them to the judge on Dec. 18. But in a reference to the plea negotiations, Denvir said, “There was a delay in having this letter delivered while we dealt with the government on the question of resolving the case.”
The court filings confirming the split between Kaczynski and his lawyers came, however, as the defense lawyers continued full preparations for the start of trial in a week, and it appeared from people who had conferred with them that Kaczynski had, tentatively at least, agreed to go ahead with his current defense team.
Still, in the court filings at the weekend, prosecutors pressed Burrell to release the full transcript of the closed-door proceedings. Referring to the speculation that Kaczynski was objecting to his lawyers’ plan to characterize him as insane, the chief prosecutor, Robert Cleary, suggested that the dispute could jeopardize any verdict in the case.
In a letter to the judge, Cleary said such a dispute could raise important issues concerning Kaczynski’s constitutional right to present his own defense. “This is especially true,” Cleary wrote, “because it appears it is the defendant’s right - not his lawyers’ - to choose which defense to proffer.”
Prosecutors have also raised questions about whether Kaczynski is competent to assist in his defense. In his filing, Burrell said that during the closed sessions “the court also probed competency” to assure himself that the defense lawyers were not suggesting that Kaczynski was unable to participate in his defense.
Leesa Brown, a spokeswoman for the prosecution, said Sunday that she could not confirm or deny that Kaczynski had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
The plea offer, the new court filings and the defense team’s continuing preparation for trial explained the unusual progression of events in recent days while jury selection was proceeding publicly. The final jury of 12 people and six alternates was seated Dec. 22.
It is clear that Kaczynski’s lawyers had provided him with some information about the “mental defect” assertion they have said they would make. But it now seems apparent that he did not fully understand the extent to which they would portray him as mentally ill.
The defense lawyers have described such things as his belief that satellites controlled people and inserted electrodes into their brains. During his most animated behavior in court, he threw his pen across the defense table while lawyers debated the psychiatric issues.
xxxx Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski is charged with committing a string of bombings that began in 1978, leaving three people dead and 28 others injured. The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 5.