May 14, 2001
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'Let Him Hear the Voice of the Law'

By J M Shenoy

From the moment he heard about the racial carnage in Pittsburgh, community activist Kishor Pokharna rushed to reach out the friends and families of the victims.

He got in touch with Anil Thakur's family in Bihar to help them cope with the loss of the 31-year-old man, who was slaughtered along with four other ethnic people by Richard Scott Baumhammers, a white supremacist, last February.

Pokharna, an accountant, also helped the family of the lone survivor in the shooting cope with the fact that Sandip Patel, 26, would remain paralyzed below his neck for life. Sandip lived with his sister Leena and brother-in-law Vijay.

And when two inter-racial peace and healing meetings were held in the city, Pokharna was there, too.

"From every tragedy, we can learn something," he had said last year. "Our religion, our tradition teaches us to forgive and love the enemy, just the way Christ urged his followers to do."

A philosopher by temperament, Pokharna also felt that there were more than five victims on that fateful day: the parents of Baumhammers too had "lost" their son. The Baumhammers were immigrants too, though far removed from the immigrants from the developing world their son hated so much.

And victim number 8 was Richard Scott Baumhammers himself. At 35, Baumhammers had allowed his body and mind to be consumed by racial hatred. As lawyers for Baumhammers argued that their client was mentally ill at the time of the shooting, Pokharna had found it difficult to believe them.

But Pokharna also believes in redemption for even the worst murderer.

Which was why he had extremely mixed feelings when he heard that Baumhammers was sentenced to die by lethal injection. On one hand, he felt justice was done, while on the other, he wondered about the death penalty.

Lawyers for Baumhammers are going to file appeal papers this week. Legal experts say the court can overturn the death sentence if it decides the sentence was "the product of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor"

"It is not a question of being happy or sad. It's a question of justice," Pokharna told reporters soon after the verdict.

"In India, we don't believe you take an eye for an eye. If you did, the whole world would be blind."

"We feel safe that in this country there is justice. And others should learn from this, that if you do something wrong you will pay for it."

Baumhammers could never understand the havoc he had caused in the families of Thakur and Sandip Patel, he said. "In India, we don't have social security because the children are the social security of the parents. They are the ones who take care of the family.

"So when the child [a grown up son, to be precise] is gone, it is very difficult for the family to cope."

Pokharna had testified earlier during the trial about Thakur's devotion to his wife, children and their grandparents.

Patel's sister Leena too felt justice had been done. But she wasn't sure whether Baumhammers would actually be executed. "There is an appeal," she said. But whether Baumhammers gets a life sentence after the appeal or is condemned to die, "Sandip will be the same. His life is gone."

She was not surprised that defence lawyer James Wymard had first begged and then shouted at the jury to spare Baumhammers' life. "Give him, instead, five death sentences," he said.

But Deputy District Attorney Edward Borkowski had pointed out earlier that despite the diagnoses of mental illness, Baumhammers still was a white supremacist and a mass murderer, because he knew right from wrong the day he killed five people.

Borkowski also said Baumhammers's parents bore no blame for their son's actions. "For all their love and for all their money and output, this defendant manipulated them."

But Wymard sought a more lenient sentence. "Look at him," he said, looking at Baumhammers, who sat mostly showing no emotions. "It's clear just by studying him... he has been mentally ill for some time. The only question that remains for your consideration is when he will die and who will decide when he will die, you or God," Wymard said. "I beg you, in the name of all that is right, let God make that decision."

But the jury had more faith in the main prosecutor.

"Let him [Baumhammers] hear the voice of justice and law," Borkowski had declared in his summation.

"Let him hear the verdict of death."

Baumhammers's killing spree began on the afternoon of April 28, and lasted nearly two hours before he was arrested. In that time, he had killed five persons and permanently paralysed another.

The first victim was Baumhammers's neighbour, Anita Gordon, who was shot dead around 1.30pm in her home in Mount Lebanon, an affluent, mostly white part of Pittsburgh. Her house was set ablaze. Her offence? She was a Jew.

Ten minutes later, several shots were fired through the windows of the Beth El Synagogue in Scott Township, a few miles from the first shooting. Swastikas were also painted on the walls of the building.

At 1.55pm, Baumhammers attacked the Indian Grocers in Scott township. Anil Thakur, a customer, was shot and killed. Co-owner of the shop Sandip Patel was shot; he survived, but is paralyzed below his neck.

At 2.10pm, shots were fired into the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in another part of Pittsburgh.

At 2.30pm, the man strode into the Ya Fei Chinese Restaurant in Robinson township and shot dead two workers, Ji-ye Sun and Thao Pham.

A half-hour later, in Center township, Beaver County, karate student Garry Lee was shot and killed inside the CS Kim Karate School.

People believe Baumhammers was in fact looking to kill an Asian, but seeing an African American, decided to kill him too. Baumhammers hated immigrants from developing nations -- and also African Americans and Jews.

The violence ended at 3.15pm when the police, who had received scores of tips about the killer, stopped a car and arrested Baumhammers without much resistance.

Earlier Reports:

Eye For An Eye: Death for Pittsburgh Racist
'Don't Kill Him. Chop Off His Limbs'
'He Said Hey, And Just Shot Me...'
I Feel Great. I Just Shot a Nigger
'Why Don't You Leave This Country?'
Racial Writings Linked To Pittsburgh Hate Killings

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