Execution of a Terrorist: Debates Over Timothy McVeigh's Death Echo 14 Years Later

Matt Story and his sister Dawn Mahan mourn at the chair that represents their mother Frances Williams who was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. On June 11, 2001, the two came to the Oklahoma National Memorial in Oklahoma City after witnessing the execution of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh on a closed-circuit broadcast. About 230 people watched the execution of McVeigh on a closed-circuit broadcast in Oklahoma City. Joe Raedle/Getty

Fourteen years ago today, Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection. McVeigh carried out the worst terrorist attack to take place on American soil before 9/11, killing 168, including 19 children, in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. During his trial, McVeigh's fate was widely discussed by the media. Today, there is similar debate taking place over the fate of another domestic terrorist, 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, who was sentenced to death in May. A June 19, 1997 article in Newsweek examined McVeigh's trial and the debate surrounding his possible execution:

Should McVeigh Die?

There were no flowers and no lace tablecloths, no neighborly plates of cookies—none of the homely rituals of the American way of grief. But what happened in courtroom C-204 in the United States Courthouse in Denver last week was a Middle American wake—three days of tearful sympathy for the victims, living and dead, of the most outrageous act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil. Witness after witness—Diane Leonard, Mathilda Westberry and so on down the list—testified to the loss of loved ones and the desolation of their lives since the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building erupted in the roar of a homemade bomb on April 19, 1995. The jurors cried, the lawyers cried and even the Honorable Richard P. Matsch, U.S. district court judge presiding, choked up at one point. As prosecutors intended, the two-year effort to execute Timothy McVeigh, 29, culminated in a burst of bathos whose dramatic power lay in its very ordinariness.

Only McVeigh himself seemed immune from the collective gloom. Seated with his left side to the spectators' gallery, he spent much of the week with his elbows on the defense table, resting both hands against his cheek and chin to shield his expression from all those watching him. His gaze was steady and his manner controlled, as they have been throughout the trial. When witness Ruth Hightower, whose daughter Anita died in the explosion, broke down on the stand, McVeigh seemed to blink as if fighting back tears. That set off a round of frantic whispering among reporters: Had the defendant finally cracked? But McVeigh quickly resumed his pose of studied stoicism, and the trial, moving toward the conclusion of the prosecution's presentation in the penalty phase, ground relentlessly on.

Now it is the defense's turn, and beyond that, the jury's. The question is life or death, mercy or vengeance. Should McVeigh, duly convicted by a thoughtful and deliberate jury of his peers, die by lethal injection when the appellate process is done? Or should he be allowed to spend the rest of his life in the archipelago of the federal corrections system—a prospect that, because the state of Oklahoma is eager to put him on trial for murder, could very well force him to face the death penalty a second time? More than any case in recent memory, The United States v. McVeigh poses a frontal challenge to the opponents of capital punishment. The crime was pure savagery, premeditated and unprovoked. The defendant, as he has shown throughout the trial, is intelligent, alert and in no way mentally impaired: There was no attempt at victim chic. Given the historical awfulness—168 deaths, including 19 hapless children—those who favor putting him to death can certainly argue that this is precisely the kind of case the death penalty was intended for. If not McVeigh, who? If not now, when?

There is nonetheless little question Americans, given a moment to reflect, are deeply ambivalent about the morality of taking a life. According to the latest Newsweek Poll, there is overwhelming support for the death penalty when it is considered in the abstract: only 16 percent oppose it. But no criminal defendant—not even Tim McVeigh—is an abstraction to the jurors who must decide his fate. Experts say two questions weigh heavily when jurors make a death-penalty decision. The first is simple pragmatism: Will the defendant eventually be released—and possibly kill again—if his life is spared? The second is emotional: Did the defendant show any remorse, and was the crime particularly barbarous? Newsweek's polling shows many of the same attitudes prevail in the public mind. Like jurors, most Americans make sharp distinctions based on the motive for the crime—though McVeigh's defense team can hardly be encouraged by the fact that 56 percent say convicted terrorists deserve to die. Like jurors, 74 percent say they support the death penalty because it eliminates the chance that a defendant will kill again. But 73 percent worry wrongful conviction can lead to the execution of an innocent person, and 67 percent agree that poor people are more likely to be executed than better-heeled defendants. Public support for pulling the switch is clearly hedged with ifs and buts: It isn't easy to play God, even in the abstract.

Timothy McVeigh appeared on the cover of Newsweek, May 8, 1995. Newsweek

In the Newsweek Poll, 67% favor the death penalty for Tim McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber; 27% don't think he should be executed. In general, 56% think a convicted murderer should get the death penalty if driven by a political or ideological belief; 35% oppose executing such a killer. Overall, 16% would apply the death penalty to those convicted of murder; 42% would reserve it for only the most brutal murders; and 16% oppose it in all cases. 49% of all those polled say a black is more likely than a white to receive the death penalty for the same crime; 75% of nonwhites polled agree.

That is the bit of humane uncertainty the defense will try to conjure up this weekvand since death-penalty decisions must be unanimous, saving Tim McVeigh will take only one juror with doubts or qualms. Newsweek has obtained a detailed look at the defense strategy, which appears to be an all-out gamble to a find a reluctant juror. The presentation, devised by attorneys Stephen Jones and Richard Burr, a prominent death-penalty specialist from Texas, will likely last three to five days and will attempt to accomplish two goals. The first is obvious: humanize McVeigh. It is far more difficult to kill someone you can empathize with—someone who, despite his crime, is at least a bit like you.

The idea here, according to Stephen Jones, is to convince the jury that McVeigh is "the boy next door." That is not as far-fetched as it sounds, despite McVeigh's robot like demeanor during the trial. He is an all-American boy—the product of an entirely typical family and social background in upstate New York. He is a bona-fide war hero as well, winning the Bronze Star for his combat service with the First Infantry Division during the Persian Gulf War. The charm offensive began last Friday with testimony from Jose M. Rodriguez, who served with McVeigh in the Army, and from John and Elizabeth McDermott of Pendleton, N.Y. Rodriguez said McVeigh was a close friend, an "outstanding" soldier and crack gunner during Desert Storm. The McDermotts, who were neighbors when McVeigh was in his teens, testified that Tim was their regular babysitter and a gentle, trustworthy boy. "I loved him," Elizabeth McDermott said. "I liked him very much," her husband testified, sobbing. "I can't imagine him doing anything like this."

This week, Newsweek has learned, the jury will hear testimony from McVeigh's father, Bill, and watch a specially prepared 15-minute videotape narrated by his father depicting McVeigh's boyhood in Lockport, a Buffalo suburb. James Nichols, the brother of co-defendant Terry Nichols, may testify. But even though she is already in Denver for the trial, defense sources say it is unlikely that Jennifer McVeigh will testify for her brother.

The second element in the defense team's strategy is where the gamble begins. That is an all-out effort, buttressed by "expert" testimony and videotapes, to show that the April 19, 1993, inferno at Waco, Texas, was a plausible motive for the bombing of the Murrah building. Prosecutors argue that such testimony is largely irrelevant and is tantamount to putting the federal government on trial. The defense counters that since the government made an issue of McVeigh's extremist politics, McVeigh now has the right to explain (or explain away) his views. "This is a political crime," a source close to the defense says. In his opening statement, Burr alluded to this strategy when he told the jury the defense would show that McVeigh was a man who loved his country but who, after Waco, came to believe that "the federal government…had become master, has declared war on the American people."

Newsweek's May 1, 1995 cover of the Oklahoma City bombing. Newsweek

The goal, in short, is to persuade the jury to see the world through Tim McVeigh's eyes--to listen to the conspiratorial fantasies that have drawn thousands of Americans into the militia movement and other groups on the paranoid ultraright. The rhetoric is extreme, the logic is twisted and common-sense standards of proof are nowhere to be found. Washington, the fantasy goes, has sold out to traitors and is part of a secret plan to impose "the New World Order." U.N. troops flying black helicopters are training for nationwide raids to take away America's guns, and incidents like Waco are proof. McVeigh loved guns: He was outraged by the Brady Bill and the federal ban on assault weapons, and he was so passionate about his Second Amendment right to bear arms that he quit the National Rifle Association because he thought it was too soft. He loved a B-movie thriller called "Red Dawn," which depicts a bunch of American kids taking to the hills to wage guerilla warfare against invading Soviet troops. Earlier this year his anguished father told ABC News he discovered that his son was into survivalism when Tim was still a student at Star Point Central High in Lockport. "That's when I realized he had this cabinet, and he had all this stuff," Bill McVeigh said. "He had gunpowder in there. Whatever he thought he needed, if everything went haywire, he'd have in there. You know, he was into survival--for [what] reason I don't know."

It is no great leap to see McVeigh—soldierly and stoic as he sits at the defense table--as a poster boy for the underground right. And that implies, or could imply, a threat the defense team might not make openly, but which some of McVeigh's supporters are now whispering about. This is the notion that if the jury gives McVeigh the death penalty he will become an instant martyr to the ultraright, which could trigger further violence by the gun crazies and millennial extremists who nurse their discontent all across the Rocky Mountain West. According to this reasoning, it would be better for the federal jury to let McVeigh live, knowing that the district attorney in Oklahoma City would almost certainly put him on trial for murder in a state court. (His chances of getting the death penalty in the state court would be high: Oklahoma has a long history of voting for the death penalty and many inmates on death row.) "From the federal government's standpoint, what they should hope for is that the state sentences him to death," a source close to the defense says. "Because that will not bring repercussions. These people [in the militia movement] do not see state and local governments as evil."

Whether anyone on the defense will make this suggestion in court remains to be seen--and such a gambit could very easily backfire with the jury. But there is no doubt that Waco will dominate this week's testimony. The defense plans to call Dick Reavis, an author who interviewed McVeigh, to testify about McVeigh's views on the Branch Davidian fiasco and the right-wing videos and articles about it that seem to have inflamed his anger. ("Waco: The Big Lie" could be one such video.) Newsweek has learned the defense will also introduce an affidavit by McVeigh himself stating that he was heavily influenced by articles in Soldier of Fortune magazine on Waco and the FBI siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The implication is that he was so swept away by his indignation over Waco that, given his radically pro-gun point of view, the Oklahoma City bombing becomes comprehensible if not defensible.

What the defense will not do is let Timothy McVeigh take the stand. That is, of course, his constitutional right and certainly the safer course of action. According to rumors circulating in Denver, McVeigh has at times been eager to make a public statement about his views on Waco. That suggests he may still adhere to the junkyard ideology of the militia movement and may possibly be unrepentant about the bombing—an easy quarry for aggressive cross-examination by prosecutors, who could push McVeigh to reveal much more than a defense lawyer would want a jury to hear.

For the far right's mythology about Waco is only part of the reason McVeigh went so terribly wrong—and the other part may be even worse. That is the fact McVeigh, the all-American boy next door, is almost certainly a racist. The fact of his racist attitudes was well known within his unit, Charlie Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment's Second Battalion; some say McVeigh's favorite piece of fiction is a book called The Turner Diaries, a blatantly racist and anti-Semitic thriller that is widely popular on the ultraright. The book's plot is even more damning: It describes a bomb attack on FBI headquarters in Washington by antigovernment "patriots" that is virtually identical to the bombing of the Murrah building. (One difference, as prosecutors have pointed out, is that no children were killed in McVeigh's favorite book.)

Fantasy became reality on April 19, 1995, and Tim McVeigh stands convicted of the horror. What should be done now with a young man who killed 168 innocent people out of fanaticism and hatred for his government? Will it be mercy or revenge? It is the jury's somber duty to choose for all of us.