Scene of the Crime 

Media grinds Unabomber trial through freak machine

Social issues lost in rush to get angles on Ted Kaczynski's pending celebrity

SACRAMENTO-Consider for a moment the wire. Not the wire in the bombs that led to the alleged Unabomber's arrest. There are pictures of those available at the trial -- wires wrapped around a small bit of paper that slid against other wires, to complete a circuit and set off the bombs.

Consider instead the wire from which the Associated Press gets its name. The first thing that the hordes of reporters did upon arrival here in California's capital city was to string up their wires. The networks rented half a parking lot near Macy's across the street from the court house to accommodate their satellite dishes. But so far, the unattended cameras in the media tents do nothing but look menacing, like cannons sticking out the side of a pirate ship.

Each media organization has ponied up five grand to get a space in the compound. The cameras are pointed across Capitol Street at the John Moss Federal Building, which contains the federal court; this is where the Unabomber trial, the cause of all the media technology falling from the sky on poor, flat Sacramento, is under way. During the appropriately-named recesses the print reporters -- The Sacramento Bee, USA Today, the Newark Star-Ledger, and so on -- burst out of the doors and have agreeable little bull sessions on the sidewalk.

A typical example from a few weeks ago: Two skinny men emerge, one waving a court document rolled up as if to beat a dog. "If they decide to kill him twice," says the Newark reporter (a handsome, thirtyish Clark Kent type in a leather coat), the case will go to New Jersey, site of another Unabomber attack. The paper he is holding is a copy of a brief filed that day regarding the defendant's willingness to submit to a psychological evaluation. (It's an important issue, because the defense is not expected to say that Theodore Kaczynski, the well-known suspect, did not do it, but rather that he was not competent enough to have meant it when he did.) Clark Kent banters with a man from the Sacramento AP office.

"They say it decapitated him. But I've seen the pictures. It didn't decapitate him," he says. I ask if I can read the brief over his shoulder. The Newark guy says, "And who are you?" The urge to say I am not there as a reporter, but just want to read the document, is hard to ignore. The strange fact of the reporting industry -- the fierce guarding of information, the keeping of it as a proprietary commodity, only to distribute it as broadly and widely as possible two minutes later -- is on full display for a moment.

I have to make my job my last name, flash my membership card as it were, to get him to smile and stop acting so suspicious. The feeling of being with the cool kids at school is fairly strong. The Newark fellow starts talking about flesh wounds again.

The AP representative nods approvingly. There is little for him to do either. The AP's primary reporter on the scene, Linda Deutch, empress of trial reporters and semi-official town crier of this event, is already inside. Deutch, fiftyish, small and alert, is at first the most beautiful antidote to the popular image of an important reporter covering a big story-the folk image not a few of the other gathered media, with their practiced faux weariness and skeptics' bearing, seem to be shooting for.

Deutch is a three-decade veteran of trials ranging from Charlie Manson to O.J. Simpson; she spoke in Missoula last spring on campus, and looks like a pocket Ethel Merman with her shock of orange hair. She seems, unfortunately, unlikely to sing. Alas, she is probably the only one at this strange trial, besides perhaps the defendant, who is not preening like an extra in a sitcom. After the session ends she plods responsibly off to the bureau to file the day's events.

On slow days, it is said, she gets interviewed herself for a while -- when jury selection began, the SF Examiner dedicated a column in part to her. Now, sitting behind her in the courtroom, she seems to serve as a constant judgment that the rest of the media looks upon with a sort of wonder: the possibility of a time when we all understood trials as primarily about the issues they raised, and not about the peculiarities of the people involved.

The Unabomber trial is a boondoggle. Amid the pastoral Denverness of the capital, the unmanned cameras and the facilities for which the networks are paying tens of thousand, are all doing nothing. The tents are empty and the notebooks are desperate so far. Fortunately, there is already assumed to be a payoff in the offing, the verdict next spring, so everyone seems willing to wait a few months. But the trial is perceived to have no drama so far. And no debates. And no issues. It only has media and Kaczynski, perhaps the first accused serial killer in history to have his motive printed as a 35,000 word treatise in two major newspapers.

Kaczynski may be an alleged murderer, but he's still got the upper hand on how he is portrayed. He, or his lawyers, apparently realize that the only way their case will be covered -- something they perhaps can live without -- is by making celebrities of those involved -- Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Richard Ramirez (LA's "Night Stalker"), whomever. But Kaczynski isn't submitting to a psychological evaluation, isn't letting us know who he is, isn't buying into the celebrity that could be his in a second. We're all out there waiting to turn on the freak machine. He's thrown his shoe in the machine. He'd clearly rather be back at the cabin. He's told us what he thinks and forced us to read it, to deal with his concepts. We can't. No one is talking about the concepts. We can only talk about the execution.

The Unabomber Manifesto reads at first a lot like a white paper from a conservative think tank. Most of the first part is a long disquisition on the nature of liberal guilt. Kaczynski sounds mostly annoyed. He also seems fairly liberal himself, though to make that case you have to presume guilt -- basing the conclusion in part on the fairly persuasive evidence that he once allegedly murdered a timber industry lobbyist, a move many environmentalists may have at least wondered about from time to time.

The Manifesto also reads like a Manifesto. (This is the media's title for it, not Kaczynski's. The defense points this out in court sometimes, referring to the document as "what has been termed 'the Manifesto,'" or "this material" or otherwise tacitly indicating that the name wasn't his idea. Which perhaps is too bad. For example, would mornings not be more fun if Joanne Jacobs' or Leigh Weimers' columns were called Manifestos?)

The defense strategy so far seems rooted in Manifesto-esque, direct, provoked aspects of Kaczynski's behavior -- his tendency to have strong opinions, to rant, to stay away from other people, to dislike doctors and technical people, to be anti-social in such an extreme way that he gets fired from a nice gig teaching math (traditionally a community of wonderfully social people), at UC Berkeley. The guy is perhaps to be forgiven for believing the walls of technology were closing in, the defense is expected to argue. He lived in a box.

The Lincoln cabin has survived the trip by flatbed to Sacramento from Montana. This is a defense idea. They intend to show that their client could not have been mentally sound, because he spent all his time typing in a snowed-in plywood cube on a mountainside. They are trying to paint a picture of Kaczynski as bearded Nell, rather than as killer Thoreau.

Coming out of the trial at the end of the day, looking across at the camera operators who will spend the next several months playing with wires while huddling in white tents measuring about ten by ten, the whole argument becomes deeply worrisome. If Kaczynski is insane, so are the TV crews, you've got to figure.

That is where it stands. As of this writing, the Unabomber trial remains in the jury selection phase. The crowning weirdness of it all is that everyone wants to be on this jury. You will be famous. You may get to kill or save someone's life. You will almost assuredly be on television or interviewed by the newspaper. It is therefore somewhat fitting that Judge Burrell, presiding over the trial, seems obsessed with the microphones in the courtroom. He keeps instructing the prospective jurors, over a hundred of whom are being interviewed by him and cross-examined by the lawyers one at a time, on how to relate better to the audio equipment. To speak up, to speak into the microphone, to address the defense and the prosecution with their answers.

What is being sought is twelve people who have nothing to do with the media, have not looked at coverage of the trial, have completely written off the entire massive effort outside, like Kaczynski has. The voir dire is being called "boring," but in the courtroom it is intense and dramatic, the jurors sneaking looks at Kaczynski in his new haircut and red sweater, watching as he whispers to his lawyer about things they can only guess at, all while trying to answer some of the hardest questions one can be asked: When is it appropriate to kill someone? Is your belief that premeditatively killing someone is moral if there has been a trial? Is violence ever justified? Does a pattern of violence indicate insanity? Is there a difference in your mind between a life in prison without chance of parole and death? Can you really believe in your heart of hearts that Kaczynski is innocent unless someone proves otherwise?

All seven prospective jurors were dismissed during the morning session. Everyone broke tiredly for lunch. In the afternoon the judge tried again to find people who ignored the viewing of a non-event by a bored, if high-tech audience. Kaczynski faced the judge, his back to the audience, the wrong way for anyone wanting to see if he was pleased.

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