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In Animated, Oscar-Nominated Doc, A Man Turns His Brother In For Murder

An animated film is up for best documentary short at the Oscars this year. It's only the second time an animated film has been in the running since the category was established in the 1940s. Last Day of Freedom is the story of Bill Babbitt, a man who turns his brother in for murder, hoping the police will help his brother get the care he needs for PTSD.

The Babbitts' story is told through more than 30,000 drawings, most of them in black and white. They were created by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, two Northern California-based artists.

This is their first film — and they had some qualms. "There's a moment that we felt like ... It's my first documentary, I don't know how to make it," Talisman says. But they felt confident in their art. "I definitely know how to draw," she says.

Talisman says the film grew out of interviews with people making their way through the criminal justice system. They say using drawings gave them more storytelling options.

"We can use metaphors in a different way," says Talisman. "We can be more creative. We can still show Bill in a way that actually depicts him in a very accurate way."

Bill Babbitt was filmed and then that footage was used as the basis for line drawings. In the film, Babbitt describes what happened when his younger brother, Manny, came home from his military service in Vietnam.

"When Manny came marching home, limping mentally and morally, they was able to discern his physical wounds," Babbitt says. "His limps they was able to patch those up, but they never got around to patching up that war wound in his head."

Manny was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

"He came to America for yet another tour of duty on the battlefield, chasing shadows, imaginary soldiers," Bill recalls.

Manny was living with Bill and his family in Northern California, and one day Bill found a cigarette lighter in his brother's clothes. It had the letters L.S. on it — the initials of a woman who'd recently been murdered. Babbitt went to the police with the lighter and turned his brother in.

On the day he turns him in, Bill told Manny they were going to play pool. "I lied to my brother on his last day of freedom," Bill says.

[Ed. note: If you'd prefer not to learn about the outcome of the case at this time, please return to this story after you've seen the film.]

Babbitt thought turning his brother in would help him get the mental health care he needed. But that didn't happen.

Filmmaker Dee Hibbert-Jones says for her, the crux of the story is trust. "I think Bill believes he was holding on to the trust of the whole family, the trust of the community and also the trust of his brother, and partly in order to protect his brother he broke that trust," Hibbert-Jones says.

The case went to court and Manny was ultimately sentenced to death.

"The jury that sentenced Manny Babbitt to death never heard most of the important facts and circumstances of his life," says Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who was involved in Manny Babbitt's appeals.

The jury, Haney says, never heard about "the mental illness from which he suffered, or an adequate explanation of post-traumatic stress disorder, or a meaningful account of the kinds of experiences that he went through in Vietnam that would have profoundly affected who he was at the time the crime was committed. All of those things were left out of the case."

Eighteen years after he was sent to prison, Manny Babbitt was sent to the gas chamber. His execution on May 4, 1999, was witnessed by his family and the family of the woman he murdered.

"Manny's name don't come up no more. My own family members, some of them don't want to talk about it no more. It's like Manny never even existed," Bill Babbitt says. "And what do I tell these people: I'm sorry?"

It's a guilt that he lives with every day.

"Bill supported the death penalty which killed his brother," Hibbert-Jones says. "He also really trusted in the police. He literally took the police to his brother believing that he would get the justice and his brother would get the help he needed."

To her, Babbitt is an example of someone who had every intention of doing the right thing. Now, he travels the world advocating against the death penalty. In fact, that's where he'll be this weekend, as Hibbert-Jones and Talisman are in Los Angeles for the Oscars.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Michel
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