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J M Shenoy
Ignoring emotion-packed pleas by the parents of Richard Scott Baumhammers and his defense lawyer, a jury sentenced to death the 35-year-old white supremacist who killed five people including Anil Thakur, 31, in a racially motivated shooting spree last April in Pittsburgh.
Baumhammers, who killed his Jewish neighbor, two Southeast Asians, and a black man apart from Thakur, could have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But the jury of seven men and five women wanted to send a strong signal against racially motivated killing.
It decided after only three hours of deliberations that started on Friday morning.
The prosecution had told the jury that Baumhammers, apart from advocating extreme anti-immigrant views, had also considered Adolf Hitler as his hero.
Another of Baumhammers' heroes is Timothy McVeigh, who is facing death by lethal injection for the Oklahoma City bombing.
Earlier, the same jury had rejected the defense contention that Baumhammers was insane and should be confined to a hospital.
Baumhammers becomes the 241st person in Pennsylvania State to be on death row. But every death penalty carries an automatic appeal.
"I think it is sad. We will have to live with it until his appeal," James Wymard, one of his two attorneys, said.
"I'll tell him this is the end of Round 1, and we will come back with Round 2," he added, complaining that the jury had "resorted" to "an eye for an eye."
Baumhammers, who had dreamt of creating a movement against immigrants from developing countries, stared away without any emotions as the verdict was read.
His parents, immigrants from Latvia who have made a fortune from their practice as dentists in Pittsburgh, wept silently as the verdict was read. Baumhammers looked at them for a fraction of a second and turned his head away.
He had worn similar expression when he was found guilty on many counts earlier. Among his victims only one, Sandip Patel, survived. But Patel is paralyzed below his neck .
"I cannot say I am happy," Patel told reporters after hearing of the death penalty news. "He killed five people and he paralyzed me.
"My life has been totally messed up because of what he did to me."
On Thursday, Baumhammers' lawyers had said they were confident that the jury would not send their client to the death chambers because he has a history of mental illness.
As the penalty part of the trial began on Thursday, James Wymard had asked the jury not to give him death punishment, asking if "it's necessary to put a mental cripple to death."
"Have we not proceeded beyond medieval days?" he continued. "For God's sake, I hope that we have. His death would diminish all of us."
Despite Baumhammers outspoken views against immigrants and the number of times he had threatened many immigrants in Pittsburgh, the defense argued that their client suffered from delusions, and that he had heard "voices" ordering him to kill people.
The defense had produced over two dozen witnesses and experts including a Yale University psychiatrist during the trial who insisted Baumhammers was mentally ill at the time of the murders. He had delusions of being followed by government agents, was worried the maid was spying on him, and believed evil forces had ordered his skin to peel off.
Wymard claimed on Thursday many mitigating circumstances to ask for a leaner sentence: His client has no significant history of prior criminal convictions; was under of extreme mental and emotional disturbance and lacked the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, he argued. Besides, "In our society is not your function to administer revenge. It is your function to administer justice," he summed up.
Therefore, he hoped, instead of a death sentence, the jury could give five concurrent life sentences to his client.
But Deputy District Attorney Edward Borkowski slammed the defense efforts, arguing Baumhammers was a radical bigot and had no respect for human life.
"We're asking you to sentence this defendant to death based on the value of human life -- five human lives," Borkowski said. "Those are the aggravating circumstances in this case."
Borkowski said Baumhammers, an unemployed immigration attorney who lived with his wealthy parents, chose his victims April 28 last year because they were Jewish, Indian, black, Chinese and Vietnamese. He (Baumhammers) wanted others to join his fight, but decided to take the matters into his own hands, he added.
While Borkowski acknowledged that Baumhammers was mentally ill with chronic delusions, he also asserted that he was "controlled, deliberate, calculating and selective" in choosing victims, avoiding attention, obeying traffic laws and trying to elude police.
"This guy was feeding into an ideology. The notion is that it was time to step into history, just like (Unabomber) Kaczynski, McVeigh and Adolf Hitler," Borkowski said. "After things don't work out, he hides behind, 'I'm not well.' You can't do that. That is not legal insanity."
Wymard retorted by conceding that the shooting spree, which lasted for more than an hour, was "one concerted rage. But he wanted the jury to remember that Baumhammers had no control over his actions.
Borkowski had argued that although Baumhammers was diagnosed with delusional disorder, he knew what he was doing on the day of the killings.
The jury also heard from Baumhammers' parents, Andrejs and Inese, that their only son has struggled with paranoia and delusions for about seven years and he was convinced FBI was following him.
Richard Baumhammers wanted to die, and told his parents about his death wish on many occasions.
"One time he even asked us to take him to Dr. Kevorkian to find out the best way to commit suicide," Andrejs Baumhammers said in a trembling voice referring to Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan doctor known for assisting terminally ill parents to kill themselves.
Borkowski also called 15 witnesses to convince the jury that the effects of Baumhammers' crimes far outweigh those of his mental illness.
Kishor Pokharna, who had known Anil Thakur, said his death at an Indian grocery store could be felt a half-world away: As the eldest son, he was expected not only to support his wife and two children in India, but his parents as well. Thakur, who had planned to return India in the middle of last year, was killed while shopping at the Indian grocer's shop co-owned by Sandip Patel.
Patel's relatives were not allowed to testify because the death penalty procedure does not address the surviving victim.
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