Kaczynski attempts suicide

Published Jan. 9, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Just hours after he apparently tried to hang himself, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski electrified a courtroom Thursday by saying he wants to be his own lawyer because he "cannot endure" being labeled mentally ill.

The U.S. marshal's office said that when Kaczynski was driven to court Thursday morning he had a red mark on the right side of his neck at collar level and his briefs were missing, according to Sacramento County Undersheriff Lou Blanas.

"We're assuming . . . that sometime during the night hours he attempted to hang himself with his own underwear," Blanas said.

Blanas added that the mathematics professor-turned hermit is now on a 24-hour suicide watch on the jail's second floor.

A lawyer for Kaczynski's brother, David, said it was true that Kaczynski had tried to kill himself. "I have confirmed it," said the lawyer, Anthony Bisceglie.

The day's events left Kaczynski's mother, Wanda, and brother, David, whose tip led to Theodore's arrest, reeling. As they had earlier in the week, they wept openly in court.

"This is the worst I've ever seen David," said Bisceglie. "He's in terrible pain. David is crying. This is the family's worst nightmare. It's on a world stage."

David Kaczynski is cooperating with his brother's lawyers in an effort to save him from the death penalty.

The reported suicide attempt occurred after Theodore Kaczynski's failed bid late Wednesday to fire his attorneys because they refused to drop plans to tell jurors that he is suffering from a mental illness.

With opening statements scheduled Thursday morning, the well-groomed, bearded Kaczynski, 55, strode into court and greeted his attorneys Quin Denvir and Judy Clarke. Once again, he ignored his brother and mother sitting a few feet away in the front row and others in the courtroom, including at least one Unabomber victim.

During a brief discussion, Clarke fixed his collar and throughout the hearing draped her arm over Kaczynski's shoulder, as did other defense lawyers, apparently trying to comfort him.

There was no public discussion of a possible suicide. Indeed, a prosecution spokeswoman said she did not learn of it until after Thursday's court proceedings.

With the courtroom packed with about 100 spectators, a subdued Clarke dropped Kaczynski's latest bombshell, telling U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. that her client of 18 months now wants to represent himself.

"This is a very difficult position for him. He believes that he has no choice but to go forward as his own lawyer," Clarke told Burrell. "It is a very heartfelt reaction, I believe, to the presentation of the mental illness defense, a situation in which he simply cannot endure."

"He fears being labeled mentally ill," virtually more than anything else in his life, Clarke told reporters later. It was one of the few times she has spoken to the media about the proceedings.

After Clarke's announcement, an astonished Burrell, noting that Kaczynski just a day earlier had said he didn't want to be his own lawyer, immediately delayed the trial for an indefinite period.

Until Thursday, Blanas said, Kaczynski was in an ordinary cell and was a "model prisoner" who did not seem to be a suicide risk. He said, though, that jail officials had noted that Kaczynski seemed depressed after he returned from court Monday. On that day, he refused to proceed with his defense team and met privately with the judge and his lawyers for several hours. Jail officials then began monitoring him every half hour.

Kaczynski is accused in four bombings, including attacks that killed a Sacramento computer store owner and a timber industry executive. He was arrested nearly a year ago at his tiny Montana cabin.

Burrell indicated he would order Kaczynski to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether the former University of California, Berkeley, mathematics professor is competent to stand trial, a process that could take weeks with the jury waiting to be seated.

Jurors were in the courtroom only briefly and were not present during the discussion about Kaczynski's legal representation. The judge sent the jury home, possibly for several weeks.

Burrell indicated that if Kaczynski is found competent, he likely will let him go forward as his own counsel, possibly with attorneys acting as his advisers.

Commenting on the dizzying series of developments Thursday, Sacramento lawyer Don Heller, a former federal prosecutor who is observing the trial, said, "I think this guy is intent on creating chaos."

Heller predicted that Kaczynski will create other disturbances once the trial gets under way.

The opposing legal teams must agree on a psychiatrist to evaluate Kaczynski _ not to determine if he is mentally ill but to pursue the much narrower question of whether he understands the bombing charges lodged against him and if he is able to assist his counsel.

Despite his past refusal to submit to a mental examination by government lawyers, Burrell said he believed Kaczynski's pledge to go through with the competency evaluation.

Kaczynski's opposition to a mental defects defense has caused a widening rift with his attorneys in recent weeks. But Denvir said Kaczynski's request to represent himself was a surprise to the defense team and further proof of his client's sickness.

"He's only doing this out of desperation, because he could not bear our putting on a mental illness defense," Denvir said in an interview. "That was just too painful for him. And that's a sign of the illness."

Denvir, the federal public defender in Sacramento, said a court hearing would be held this afternoon to determine who might administer a psychiatric examination, and when.

_ Information from New York Times was used in this report.