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Executed Veteran Buried With Honors

May 10, 1999

WAREHAM, Mass. (AP) _ A decorated Vietnam veteran who was executed in California last week for murdering an elderly woman was laid to rest with military honors in his hometown Monday.

Dozens of sobbing friends, family and veterans attended the ceremony for Manuel Babbitt.

Babbitt, who received a Purple Heart on death row, was executed by injection on May 4 _ a day after his 50th birthday _ at San Quentin prison in California.

``Wash away the sins of our brother Manny in the blood of Jesus Christ,″ the Rev. Thomas Frechette prayed over Babbitt’s casket.

Babbitt’s fifth-grade teacher, Beverly Lopes, delivered a tearful eulogy at St. Patrick’s Church in which she described how she grew close to her former student in the years leading up to his death.

``I became the student and you, Manny, became my teacher,″ Lopes said, recalling how she exchanged hundreds of letters and phone calls with Babbitt over the years. ``You let me know you loved the world and I let you know the world loved you back.″

Babbitt, who served with the Marines through the bloody 77-day siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, was sentenced to die for killing Leah Schendel in 1980.

He broke into her Sacramento, Calif., apartment and hammering her with punches that broke her dentures and split the skin on her forehead to the bone. Her heart later gave out.

Babbitt’s supporters said he was out of his mind the night he attacked the 78-year-old woman, believing himself back in combat in Vietnam.

But prosecutors said Babbitt killed the woman during a robbery. Babbitt also was convicted of the robbery and attempted rape of another woman the following night.

A mattress had been pulled over the top half of Schendel’s body, a tea kettle placed on her pelvis and a leather strap tied around her ankle.

Defense attorneys said Babbitt’s use of the strap was like a soldier tagging battlefield dead, and that his efforts to cover the body evoke the combat practice of covering the dead with whatever materials are at hand.

``Every combat vet lives with those demons, trained demons, that would have a human being destroy another human being in war,″ said Ervin L. Russell, a Babbitt friend and a veteran who wore camouflage fatigues to the service. ``In many cases, the destruction falls upon the veterans themselves.″

Babbitt’s supporters said he had been troubled by mental illness since his youth, and he cracked under the pressure of the siege of Khe Sanh.

According to witness statements sent to California Gov. Gray Davis, Babbitt sometimes wore combat fatigues and crouched in the streets of Providence, R.I., like a soldier patrolling the jungle.

But fellow veterans said he served heroically in Vietnam, and a retired Detroit police officer, Lynn Dornan, has told about how Babbitt pushed him into a trench to save him from an incoming barrage.

Babbitt received a Purple Heart in prison for wounds suffered at Khe Sanh. The rare death row ceremony infuriated Mrs. Schendel’s family, who demanded _ and got _ legislation banning another such presentation in California.

A local detachment of uniformed veterans gave Babbitt full military honors, featuring a flag-draped casket, a rifle salute and a bugler who played ``Taps.″ About 75 people attended the ceremony in Wareham, about 44 miles southeast of Boston.

Any veteran who received an honorable discharge is eligible for burial with military honors, said Jack Soraghan, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 1997, fears that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh might be buried in a military cemetery prompted President Clinton to sign a law prohibiting people convicted of capital crimes from being buried in such cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery.

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