Consenting to Death
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Timothy McVeigh entered the American consciousness with a bang.
Soon, his short, murderous life will be snuffed out with scarcely more than a whimper. The Justice Department's recent decision to delay his impending execution until June 11 -- a move intended to give his defense attorneys time to review documents the FBI failed to turn over during his trial -- is unlikely to lead to the commuting of his sentence.
But the emergence of more than 3,000 pages of FBI documents related to the Oklahoma City bombing, and withheld until the week before McVeigh was to have been executed, has given the nation pause for thought. After all, say critics of the death penalty, if the phenomenal scrutiny and attention paid to the McVeigh case did not bring about a just and fair trial, what fate befalls the vast majority of death row inmates whose cases generate only a tiny fraction of that kind of media and public interest?
While lawyers have indicated that they might still challenge McVeigh's conviction or his death sentence, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other Bush administration officials have made it clear that nothing in the many thousands of pages of documents will change McVeigh's guilt, or his death sentence.
If the Attorney General's affirmation of a pending execution comes true this summer, a lethal combination of drugs will indeed be injected into McVeigh's body in Terre Haute, Indiana.
As McVeigh breathes in his last few breaths, the survivors of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City -- and the family members of those who perished in the blast -- are finally supposed to exhale a collective sigh of relief. In the aftermath of McVeigh's death, they are expected to begin the "healing process," or even to achieve a sense of "closure" about one, unimaginably cruel day on April 19, 1995 that forever changed the course of their lives.
But in and of itself, McVeigh's execution will not bring about anything remotely resembling closure for the family members of those who were killed in the bomb blast, says Bud Welch. Welch's 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, died in the blast. While there's no doubt of McVeigh's guilt, Welch says, he opposes the death penalty in this case as in all others, because the act of execution is one of "revenge and hatred."
"When we take him out of that cage ... and execute him, at the end of the day, what we will have ended up with is a staged political event. It does nothing more or less for our society than that," says Welch, a 61-year-old service station owner who still lives in Oklahoma City.
Joining the chorus of dissent against the McVeigh execution is Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization. In opposing the death penalty and supporting surviving family members like Welch, MVFR is trying to spread another kind of message. The death penalty, they say, "derails" the survivor's process of healing. Instead of spending millions on sentencing people to death, the group argues, monies could be better spent focusing on crime prevention and effective financial support for victims' families.
"It's important to de-link the fate of the killer with what the needs of the victims are," says Renny Cushing, Executive Director of MVFR.
Cushing, a recent, two-term member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, lost his father to a murder when a local police officer (the policeman and his wife, unbeknownst to the family, held a longstanding grudge) fired his shotgun through the family's front screen door in 1988.
"We live in a society where the death penalty is supposed to be this event that is a balm to [survivors'] pain. But it misses what the aftermath of murder is about: the healing process. I don't believe that you end up in the long-run finding healing by replicating the act that brought the pain in the first place."
Shortly after his father's killers were identified (and eventually sentenced to life without parole), an acquaintance came up to Cushing to express his condolences. "I hope they fry those bastards," Cushing remembers him saying.
"He presumed that I had changed my position on the death penalty. I was opposed before my father's murder to the death penalty, and so for me to change my position would give power to the murderers ... Part of reclaiming my life was not allowing my values to be taken away."
Much of the work that MVFR does, Cushing explains, revolves around trying to educate the public about the real needs of survivors and the antagonism that surviving family members face when they vocally oppose the death penalty. MVFR plans its first national conference in Boston from June 7-10 to discuss these and other related issues.
"There is very serious discrimination against victims who don't embrace the death penalty. The proper response to murder in this country is that you should want the killer put to death. If you don't, you become suspect. Your love for your relative is challenged," he says.
"So what happens for us is a kind of dual isolation: we lose someone to murder -- and people don't want to be near us because of that -- and then we oppose the thing that everyone expects us to want -- the death penalty -- and people abandon us because of that as well."
To add insult to injury, says Cushing, victims assistance advocates and agencies often abandon surviving family members if they come out in opposition to the death penalty. Those who oppose capital punishment can also suffer the wrath of prosecuting attorneys and judges.
In 1986, SueZann Bosler and her father, Rev. Billy Bosler, were attacked in their Miami church by a mumbling, glassy-eyed intruder. Stabbed 24 times, Bosler's father was killed, while she herself was stabbed in the back and head and left for dead.
Because her father had always been a tireless opponent of the death penalty, Bosler attempted to speak out against a death sentence for her father's killer, James Bernard Campbell, over the course of three trials and two sentencings.
In the first two trials, Bosler says, her desire to let the jury know that she did not seek the death penalty for her father's killer were discouraged by the prosecuting attorneys. But by the time of the third trial, Bosler had decided to speak out clearly in front of the jury, particularly as she had begun to learn more about her father's killer. Campbell, she says, has an IQ of 71, and had to be put on medication to keep him calm and alert throughout his own trial. "He tried drinking bleach when he was a child to kill himself," says Bosler, adding that the man had a history of being abused as a child, followed by a life-long problem with drugs and alcohol.
And so, in answer to a simple question about her occupation during the third trial, Bosler answered that she was a hairdresser -- and an activist against the death penalty.
The comment, heard by the jury, resulted in a swift admonition from the judge. "If you say anything about death penalty again," she recalls him saying, "I will put you in jail for six months and fine you for doing so."
On June 13, 1997 (the same day that McVeigh was sentenced to death), her father's killer was given three consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty.
"Campbell's life is just as human as yours and mine," she says. "They threatened to put me in jail [for that opinion], but it was the right thing to do."
Similar themes have played out in the McVeigh case, as Attorney General Ashcroft (and his predecessor, Janet Reno), have focused their energies on talking to pro-death penalty survivors and family members of those who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Worse yet, McVeigh's death sentence has pitted against each other people who once joined one another in support.
On June 13, 1997, when the announcement was made that the jury had reached a verdict in the McVeigh trial, Welch joined a crowd of a thousand people gathered at the bomb site to hear the murderer's fate. When it was announced that McVeigh had been given the death sentence, says Welch, many hundreds of people clapped and applauded.
One woman whose child was killed in the bombing came up to Welch, who had made his opposition to the death penalty clear to everyone.
"She clapped within two inches of my nose," he recalls. "It felt awful."
Another man walked up to Welch and slapped him on the shoulder. "Well, buddy, you didn't win that one," he remembers the man saying sardonically.
"I'm uncomfortable being around people with so much anger. I wish they would deal with their anger and go beyond. But unfortunately, some of them will die with it. Some of those people have aged 20 years in the last six years because they're so consumed with anger," says Welch.
Not that Welch doesn't understand that kind of anger.
For the first 10 months after the bombing, he says, "I was so damn full of rage and vengeance that I drank myself to sleep every night ."
"I smoked over a pack a day when Julie was killed," he states flatly. "That escalated within days to three packs a day. People would say, 'you're killing yourself.' But my attitude at that point was that the sooner I die, the sooner I'll get to see Julie again."
Finally, says Welch, he was able to get through what he now calls a "mental and physical illness" and to begin comprehending and grappling with his monumental loss.
"Her death grips me every single day. But I no longer live with all that horrible rage and vengeance that I had, and I thank God for that."
Welch's harrowing experience in the aftermath of his daughter's death has allowed him to develop a different kind of perspective on the killer himself. Now a friend to Timothy McVeigh's father, Welch sees the younger McVeigh as an angry, disturbed and suicidal 33-year-old.
"When we kill him ... we've ended up with an assisted suicide," says Welch.
From what is now understood about McVeigh's mindset at the time of the bombing, his all-consuming rage over the federal government's raid of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 apparently precipitated an initial decision to pursue "a campaign of individual assassination." Former Attorney General Janet Reno was at the top of that list.
McVeigh eventually decided that a strategic attack on a "command center" would send his message in a manner suited to the outrage he felt over an "increasingly militaristic and violent federal government."
Ironically, the FBI mismanagement of the documents in the McVeigh case has brought about intensified bipartisan criticism and open skepticism regarding the workings of the FBI. Lawmakers, including Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), have publicly expressed their concern that the notoriously secretive agency is tarnishing its own image by making questionable decisions, whether with regard to the agencies failure to arrest agent Robert P. Hanssen (suspected for many years of espionage) until this year, or its deadly handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge, Idaho standoffs in the 1990s.
Legislators like Grassley turn to television talk shows and subcommittees to hash out their issues and complaints, but McVeigh opted for a more brutally direct approach. His decision--whether made alone or, as many speculate, in concert with a host of other co-conspirators--cost the lives of 168 people, including 19 children. Another 700 were injured in what amounted to the nation's worst act of domestic terrorism.
Such a drastic death toll helped to seal McVeigh's fate in sentencing. Although the federal government has not executed anyone since 1963, the decision to kill McVeigh was aided by the outrage over the sheer number of deaths, and a new-found panic (initially and mistakenly assigned to Arab-American "terrorists") about domestic terrorism.
When McVeigh announced, last December, that he did not want to pursue further appeals of his case, proponents of his execution were satisfied. The convicted killer had, for all intents and purposes, consented to his own death.
But in an Amnesty International USA report released last month, "The Illusion of Control," the human rights organization makes its case that a decision taken by someone who is under threat of death at the hands of others can never be considered consensual. Executions like McVeigh's are a form of premeditated killing, says Amnesty, "a human rights violation that is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it."
The illusion of control to which the report refers is two-fold, notes Rob Freer, the author of the report. "Some prisoners who give up their appeals may do so because of bleakness of their situation; consenting to execution is the only thing that gains them some semblance of control over the situation."
Freer also critiques the government's own "illusion of control."
"To control violence, [they] use the death penalty over selected prisoners. It's a false promise, and it does nothing to diminish the problem of violence in the country."
There are a number of factors contributing to a prisoner's decision not to pursue appeals against his or her death sentence, Freer explains, including mental disorder, physical illness, remorse, bravado, religious belief, the severity of conditions of confinement or quest for notoriety.
Many have raised concerns that McVeigh's motivations in consenting to his own execution have everything to do with an effort to become a "martyr" for his cause, and that his death, in turn, may provoke further retaliatory acts.
Furthermore, says Freer, the use of capital punishment in this country is both seriously flawed and disproportionately aimed at the poor, the mentally disabled and disturbed, and toward people of color.
Recognizing various problematic aspects of the death penalty, more than 100 countries have abandoned executions in law or practice. Twelve states in the U.S. have also passed moratoriums on the death penalty.
While popular support for capital punishment in the U.S. still runs strong -- two-thirds of Americans favor the death penalty in cases of murder according to the latest Gallup polls -- accounts of wrongly convicted death row inmates have eroded that support from a high point of 80 percent in 1994.
More than 3,700 prisoners -- 54% of whom are people of color -- currently sit on death row in the U.S.
Just eight days after McVeigh's rescheduled execution date, another federal death row inmate, Juan Garza, is scheduled to die. Garza, who is Latino, is one of 17 people of color out of 20 federal prisoners currently awaiting execution.
Opponents of the death penalty believe that innocents are likely to be among those awaiting execution in federal and state prisons.
"Capital punishment is not about the execution of any individual, because we can't make laws to target an individual," says Robert Meeropol, Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. "You cannot give the government the power to kill Timothy McVeigh without giving them the power to kill other people, some of whom will inevitably be innocent."
Meeropol was the youngest of two sons to be orphaned by the double-execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. The two were electrocuted to death by the federal government in 1953.
Already, 96 death row inmates have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., and at least 23 people are believed to have been wrongly executed in the past century.
"[Capital punishment] is not a line cast in a small village pond to catch a single fish. It is a drag net hauled across the bottom of our societal sea. The catch will include Timothy McVeigh and others like him, but many with less culpability and even some who are innocent will become entangled," Meeropol says.
For Welch and others who oppose the killing of McVeigh, the impending execution is another black mark against the U.S. and its pretensions as a great protector of human and civil rights.
"Americans hold our noses high enough in the air so that if it really rained, it would drown us," says Welch only half-jokingly. "We think we're great leaders as far as human rights are concerned ... But there are countries [across the world] that are years ahead of us. We will abolish death penalty eventually. Then, we'll join rest of free world and finally come on in to 21st century."
Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based journalist who writes frequently on criminal justice and prison-related topics.