Veteran to be executed as lobby fails

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AS HE marked his 50th birthday yesterday on Death Row in California, Manny Babbitt had the support of more friends than he had ever known in his miserable life - hundreds of fellow Vietnam veterans who believe his harrowing combat experiences give a compelling reason to spare him the death penalty.

One Vietnam veteran he failed to move, however, was California's new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, who has turned down his last-minute appeal for clemency. Babbitt will therefore be put to death by lethal injection early this morning for the murder of a 78-year-old woman in Sacramento.

The case has aroused rare passions in California, with defenders of Babbitt arguing that he suffered a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder and that Mr Davis's refusal to grant clemency is a victory for political expediency over human compassion. The family of the victim, meanwhile, believes he deserves to die.

On the night in question, Mr Babbitt was walking home after a long bout of drinking and pot-smoking with fellow veterans. He says the fog and the car lights brought on memories of the airport in Khe Sanh, where United States forces were besieged for 77 days in 1968 and where he was severely wounded.

He then burst into the home of Leah Schendel, beat her fiercely and provoked the heart attack that killed her. The prosecution said he also attempted to rape her and robbed her.

According to the defence, he was suffering a terrible flashback. The fact that he placed a mattress over her upper body and tied a leather strap to her toe indicated memories of combat, when soldiers used toe- tags to mark out the dead and try to protect the fatally wounded from further damage. The attempted rape is far from proven, they say.

Babbitt, who had a history of abuse and mental illness long before Vietnam and afterwards had a chequered career as a petty thief and was certified schizophrenic, says he has no recollection of the episode.

"As a fellow veteran, someone who only glimpsed a fragment of what this Marine experienced, it is not difficult to grasp the complexity of his emotional life after returning to `the world'," the poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote in one of many testimonials on Babbitt's behalf. "Here is a man who returned, miraculously, but with a diminished image of himself, with his possibilities and dreams dead."

Defending his decision, Mr Davis acknowledged Babbitt's military career, for which he won a Purple Heart, but said: "Such experiences cannot justify or mitigate the savage beating and killing of defenceless, law- abiding citizens."

This is the second high-profile capital case in which Mr Davis has given the thumbs-down. He allowed the execution of a former Buddhist monk convicted of armed robbery in January. His landslide election win last November may have marked a cautious liberal revival in California after 16 years of Republicanism, but he also campaigned on a vigorous pro-death penalty platform and appears unwilling to open himself to the accusation that he is soft on crime.