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Death Row Inmate Gets Purple Heart

March 21, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Manuel Babbitt stood proudly as a Marine officer pinned the Purple Heart on his denim shirt in front of his teary-eyed mother and brother.

The officer shook Babbitt’s hands, which were shackled to his waist throughout Friday’s ceremony. Then the medal was removed.

Thirty years ago, rocket fire injured Babbitt’s head and hand during the bloody siege of Khe Sanh, Vietnam.

That earned him the Purple Heart.

Eighteen years ago, Babbitt administered a fatal beating to a 78-year-old woman.

That earned him a spot on death row.

``The irony is, I guess, that 30 years ago he was facing a different kind of death than he’s facing now,″ said Charles Patterson, Babbitt’s attorney. ``It takes nothing away from the Purple Heart. He earned it, he deserved and I thank God that he got it.″

Babbitt’s foxhole buddies gathered at a news conference in San Francisco to remember the Marine who fought and bled on the fields of Khe Sanh, not the convicted killer.

``He was a model soldier. A model Marine,″ said John Hargesheimer, who fought alongside Babbitt. ``You wanted him to serve beside you. He deserves the Purple Heart.″

For 77 days, from January to April 1968, the Marines withstood a siege by communist forces at Khe Sanh, during the Tet offensive, which is widely considered one of the turning points of the Vietnam War.

Gary Dahlheimer fought with Babbitt as part of an anti-tank battalion in the 3rd Marine Division.

``We were under constant bombardment by artillery rockets and mortar fire ... machine-gun fire. We were surrounded by 40,000 North Vietnamese,″ Dahlheimer said, choking back tears.

``It was a tragic time. A hard time for all of us. ... We have a tight, common bond and a love for one another that will never die. Today, I’d give my life for this man as I would at that time,″ said Dahlheimer, while looking at a photograph of Babbitt in fatigues.

Maj. Mark Aeppli presented Babbitt with the medal at a small ceremony at San Quentin prison, which reporters were not allowed to attend.

``I’m sympathetic to the families of his victims,″ Aeppli said. ``But it’s important to realize that these are two separate and distinct incidents. And 30 years ago he earned that medal. Obviously one of the most important things you can give is your blood.″

Aeppli said he pinned the medal on Babbitt’s prison-issued blue denim shirt while Babbitt’s hands were shackled to his waist.

It was with those same hands that Babbitt delivered a severe beating to Leah Schendel, who lived in a senior citizen’s complex in Sacramento. Babbitt also was convicted of the robbery and attempted rape of another woman the following night.

In his defense, Babbitt claimed insanity due to head injuries suffered as a child and again in Vietnam. His case is in a federal appeals court.

In a terse statement issued Friday, Attorney General Dan Lungren said ``Babbitt earned his position on death row for his cowardly actions long after his military service had ended.″

Lungren asked that the public ``not forget (Babbitt) sits on death row for the scars he has left on the family and friends of Leah Schendel when he callously took her life.″

Babbitt was not allowed to keep his Purple Heart or the citation that came with it. They were given to his mother immediately after the ceremony.

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