FBI gaffe makes McVeigh case ideal for death penalty opponents
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) – Because of the crime he committed, Timothy McVeigh has been a difficult figure for death penalty opponents to rally around.
But the revelation of an FBI oversight in his trial has transformed McVeigh’s case into what abolitionists call a perfect example of America’s flawed death penalty system.
”If with the scrutiny they had in this case, they can have a bungle, then what’s happening in the cases that nobody’s watching?” said Abe Bonowitz, director of the national group Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
”That’s something that everybody should be worried about.”
Bonowitz and other activists gathered Sunday in Terre Haute for anti-death penalty activities originally scheduled to precede McVeigh’s execution, which was delayed from Wednesday to June 11.
About 50 people filled folding metal chairs at a Unitarian church to hear a morning sermon about abolishing the death penalty, then about 30 others took to the Vigo County Courthouse to protest executions.
Their numbers were far fewer than the crowds of demonstrators that had been expected to descend on this far western Indiana city for what would have been the first federal execution since 1963. Still, abolitionists believe the delay will help them get their message across and keep the issue in the public’s mind for at least another month.
”Suddenly we are hearing about the system itself, and how it works or doesn’t work,” said Suzanne Carter, head of the Terre Haute Abolition Network. ”I want people to really think about it, to start saying, ‘Why do we do this?’ and ‘Is it any good?”’
Until now, most of the public’s focus was on McVeigh and the crime he committed, killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The heinous nature of his crime made it hard even for some who oppose the death penalty to protest McVeigh’s scheduled execution by lethal injection.
”I’m sitting on the fence,” said Martha Cornelius, who attended Sunday morning’s Unitarian service. ”I’m not in favor of abolishing the death penalty until there’s a law that would guarantee life imprisonment without parole.”
But she also took the abolitionist sermon of Bill Breeden to heart. And that’s where Breeden and others believe the delay gives them a stronger chance to win people over.
”It’s a victory for us,” Breeden said of the delay. ”Obviously we were planning for a big day. Abolitionists were going to be coming out in droves. But we’d much rather not have an execution.”
Also helping the anti-death penalty movement is the timing of McVeigh’s rescheduled execution, eight days before federal death row inmate Juan Garza is scheduled to die in the same facility.
Garza, who is Hispanic, is one of 17 minorities out of 20 federal death row inmates, and represents abolitionists’ concerns that the death penalty is used more freely against non-whites.
Abolitionists believe that having two federal executions little more than a week apart, after not having any in nearly 40 years, is bound to lead the public to rethink the system and how it is handled.
George White, who was cleared of a murder conviction in Alabama when missing evidence was discovered seven years after his arrest, was with the Terre Haute protesters Sunday, putting himself up as living proof that no system is perfect.
”We made mistakes even in a horribly visible tragedy like the Oklahoma City bombing,” said White, who spent more than two years in prison before he was cleared. ”Regardless of where people are on the concept of the death penalty, this just further demonstrates where we are as a nation in the practice of it.”
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.