Blunder delays McVeigh execution

TERRE HAUTE, Ind., Reuters

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, condemned to die for the bloodiest act of terror ever on U.S. soil, was weighing his options on Saturday and could decide to fight his death sentence after a blunder by the FBI led the government to delay his execution.

The 33-year-old Gulf War veteran, who has admitted killing 168 men, women and children in the 1995 bombing and waived all appeals, saying he was prepared to die for his actions, was described by his lawyers as frustrated and distressed at the one month delay in the execution, which had been set for May 16.

McVeigh had prepared himself mentally to die but would now consider appealing his execution order, his Tulsa, Oklahoma-based lawyer, Rob Nigh, told reporters on Friday outside the federal prison in Terre Haute.

McVeigh’s execution has now been set for June 11.

Nigh said the stay of execution was appropriate but the whole affair showed it was time for a moratorium on all federal executions.

“Mr. McVeigh is very resilient,” he said. “He’s capable of evaluating new information and making a decision based on that information.” Asked if McVeigh would now challenge the death penalty imposed on him in 1997 for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, Nigh responded: “It is certainly possible. He is going to make an informed decision.”

The U.S. government had little option but to delay what would have been the first federal execution in 38 years after revelations that the FBI failed to hand over large quantities of evidence — including interviews conducted in the aftermath of the bombing, pictures and tape recordings — to McVeigh’s defense team.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the delay was ordered “to promote the sanctity of the rule of law” but that the documents did not create “any doubt about McVeigh’s guilt.”

President George W. Bush agreed with the decision to postpone the execution, saying, “This is a country who will bend over backwards to make sure that (McVeigh’s) constitutional rights are guaranteed.”

The decision provoked outrage, however, among the bombing victims and their relatives and was certain to focus renewed attention on the death penalty in America, which is widely seen abroad as a fundamental human rights violation.

“He’s already admitted he was guilty and taken full responsibility for it. Go ahead and let him die,” said survivor Martin Cash, who lost an eye in the blast.

Others blamed the FBI for a monumental mistake in its handling of one of the most important criminal cases in U.S. history.

“What an embarrassment,” said Fran Ferrari, a survivor who had planned to watch McVeigh’s execution on Wednesday on closed-circuit television. “Who is responsible for this happening?”

In Denver, Nathan Chambers, another of McVeigh’s attorneys, strongly criticized the FBI for not handing over the documents four years ago, when the defense team was entitled to see them.

“This is the FBI’s most important investigation — maybe ever, and they hold themselves out as being the premier law enforcement agency in the world,” he said. “If they’re incapable of handling their most important investigation in a manner that instills confidence, we all need to be concerned.”

It was the latest controversy to rattle the FBI.

The FBI’s role at the 1993 standoff with Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, has been scrutinized amid criticism that excessive force was used and questions about why it took six years for the FBI to admit using incendiary devices.

About 80 Branch Davidians died when their compound burned down on April 19, 1993, at the end of the 51-day standoff — an incident McVeigh cited as a key reason for the deep hatred for the federal government that led to the Oklahoma City bombing.

There have also been recent revelations of faulty work at a bureau crime laboratory, the spy case involving suspected Russian mole Richard Hanssen and the FBI’s handling of a suspected espionage case against a Chinese-born nuclear scientist, We Ho Lee.

FBI Director Louis Freeh, who was appointed by then-President Bill Clinton and has held office for the past eight years, said last week he would retire in June with two years left in his 10-year term.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that the thousands of pages of documents not turned over to McVeigh’s lawyers before his trial were found by the FBI during a fifth search ordered in December for materials related to the Oklahoma City bombing investigation.

People familiar with the case were quoted as saying the FBI’s sloppy data storage and retrieval system were likely to blame for missing the documents in the previous searches, and that the agency had been warned about the information management problem in 1999.