‘Justifiable Homicide’: When the Death Penalty Hits Home

‘Justifiable Homicide’: When the Death Penalty Hits Home

On the night of Manny Babbitt’s execution at San Quentin, Naomi White had a bad fall. Somewhere along the gravel path leading away from the prison, her ankle buckled and she tumbled face forward in the darkness. Her husband, Derrel Myers, knelt down beside her.

Before the two could exchange a word, a pair of headlights appeared. Two men got out of a minivan and came to Naomi’s side. Together with Derrel, the strangers lifted Naomi to her feet. The driver offered Naomi and Derrel a ride to their car, explaining he couldn’t take them right away. “We have to get around to the back gate.” The van charged forward into the vacant night.

The road behind them led to only one place, so it was clear that, like Derrel and Naomi, the two men and the woman in the front passenger seat had just come from the vigil at the prison entrance. Earlier that evening, about seven hundred death penalty opponents descended on San Quentin—schoolchildren, folksingers, and burly Vietnam vets—engulfing the usual contingent of about twenty death penalty supporters. Babbitt, the convicted murderer awaiting execution, was a decorated African-American Marine Corps veteran who had survived the seventy-seven-day siege at Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Naomi and Derrel, white human rights activists who had come of age during the Vietnam War, had come to San Quentin to protest what they considered a premeditated murder.

At 12:01 a.m., the hour the prison officials were scheduled to administer the lethal injection, a disembodied voice announced over the loudspeaker that Babbitt had been granted a thirty-minute stay for a final U.S. Supreme Court review of his case. At this point, Naomi turned to Derrel and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“It was clear to everyone there that they were going to execute him in thirty minutes,” Naomi later explained. “It was like waiting for this murder to take place and I couldn’t stand it. I got physically ill and dizzy.”

Earlier that evening, in the same crowd, Manny’s youngest sister, Donna Kendricks, experienced similar symptoms. She had been fasting for a few days in anticipation of this night. At 10 p.m., she started to feel lightheaded. “I was doing a lot of crying and I was sick from that and I started to vomit,” Donna recalls. “I couldn’t stand up.”

Just after midnight, Jesse Morris, one of the public defenders on the Babbitt case, got a call on his cell phone saying the stay had been lifted. Jesse had been assigned to accompany Manny’s family at all public appearances during a whirlwind clemency campaign. Jesse looked over at Allen, Donna’s husband, and gently nodded. Allen said, “C’mon, Donna, we gotta go.” Donna didn’t ask why. She was hoping Jesse had gotten word that Manny was going to live, and they would drive around to the back entrance and find out Manny had been granted a reprieve.

Back in the minivan, the man in the backseat asked Derrel what ...