U.S. awaits McVeigh’s Monday execution


TERRE HAUTE, Ind., The Washington Post

The images of the Oklahoma City bombing are seared into the collective memory of a nation: The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, gutted and transformed into a grave. A firefighter cradling the corpse of 1-year-old Baylee Almon, hoping that she was still alive. The haunting memorial to 168 innocents, a simple chair for each victim.

On Monday, the execution of Timothy James McVeigh will complete the montage — viewed only by a few dozen witnesses at the federal government’s newly-constructed execution facility and 300 survivors and relatives of the dead in a special closed-circuit telecast in Oklahoma City.

Final preparations for the first federal execution in 38 years were underway at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary Sunday, headed for a 24-hour countdown that begins Sunday at 7:00 a.m. Central time. By then, authorities said, McVeigh, 33, will have been moved from death row to a 9-foot by 14-foot cell — a 500-yard trip he will make in a darkened prison van.

“In two days, it will be over for us,” observed George Azar, owner of the Saratoga Restaurant in this city of 57,000 people. “In Oklahoma City, they’re going to have to live with it forever.”

McVeigh’s death will, for some, bring a sense of finality and justice to the events that began at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995 when McVeigh set off a truck bomb outside the federal building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. The saga has continued for more than six years, at a price to taxpayers of more than US$100 million and an incalcuable cost to its victims.

“When this is over, I will know that Tim McVeigh cannot ever hurt me again,” said Jannie Coverdale, 63, who lost two grandsons in the blast. “Since the bombing, Tim has hurt me so many, many times, in little ways, with his words … That won’t happen any more.”

For others, the most widely covered execution in American history will not mean the end. “I don’t believe in the word ‘closure’,” said Tom Kight, 62, whose 23-year-old stepdaughter died in the bombing. “This is just the end of a chapter in this tragedy.”

Still, Kight and approximately 300 others directly touched by the worst act of terrorism on American soil are preparing to gather 600 miles from here at Will Rogers World Airport, a few miles from the blast site, where they will watch a closed circuit telecast of McVeigh’s death available only to them.

The transmission will begin when drapes are opened, revealing McVeigh strapped to a table in the execution chamber, officials said. By that point, the intravenous needle used to administer a cocktail of lethal drugs will already be inserted in his arm.

McVeigh will be asked if he wishes to make a final statement. When he is pronounced dead, the transmission will end.

Eight days later, another federal prisoner, convicted murderer and drug smuggler Juan Raul Garza, is scheduled to be executed in the same death chamber.

The witnesses inside viewing rooms for McVeigh’s execution will include several people invited by McVeigh, including his two attorneys, Rob Nigh Jr. and Nathan Chambers; and Lou Michel, author of “American Terrorist,” the recently published book about McVeigh. Gore Vidal, who is writing a magazine article about McVeigh, was scheduled to attend McVeigh’s originally scheduled May 16 execution but will not make it to Monday’s execution.

No relatives or spiritual advisor will attend. Ten victim witnesses selected by lottery, ten randomly selected journalists and a handful of government officials will also observe.

The rest of the nation will see the event-though not the execution, of course-on television, through the eyes of the estimated 1,400 journalists who now populate the media village outside the sprawling prison-and who will have precious little to show the world.

Eight national television networks will carry news of McVeigh’s demise live during hours normally reserved for upbeat morning programs. The networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox on broadcast; CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and Court TV on cable-have been planning their coverage for months. Network morning stars such as Katie Couric on NBC and Charlie Gibson on ABC will anchor from Oklahoma City.

Saturday, the media marked time, as a lone anti-death penalty demonstrator stood outside the gates of the 60-year-old, red brick prison. On Sunday night, demonstrators will be allowed into two designated protest areas ringed by orange plastic fencing.

Police were out in force, cruising Highway 63, which runs past the prison, and other roads, searching mainly for illegally parked media vehicles.

Law enforcement agents were stationed everywhere, including along the Wabash River, which runs south of the sprawling facility.

Some entrepreneurs were collecting large sums to park cars as others erected small tents where they planned to sell everything from shish kebob to T-shirts. But some prison neighbors had posted red “No Trespassing” signs.

McVeigh telephoned family members today to “give them any consolation he could,” Nigh said. He spent the rest of the day getting his affairs in order and reading mail.

McVeigh is in a “decent frame of mind,” Nigh said.

McVeigh’s attorneys will not see him until Sunday. They will be allowed to stay with him as late as 5:00 a.m. Monday.

One final legal matter distantly related to the McVeigh case remained unresolved Saturday, when attorneys in a separate case appealed to the Supreme Court to allow videotaping of McVeigh’s execution. The lawyers are seeking to prove that the federal death penalty process is cruel and unusual punishment.

It is not yet known what McVeigh’s final words or final meal will be, though he is limited to prison food or a meal authorities can bring in from Terre Haute restaurants at a cost of US$20 or less.

McVeigh will be moved from his death row cell to a holding cell near the execution chamber by 7:00 a.m. Sunday, but has requested that his face not be shown in the videotape prison officials will make of that 500-yard trip. He will emerge from the prison behind a canopy, officials said, and be placed in a vehicle with darkened windows.

The execution will cap a massive investigation by federal authorities that had been, until bungling came to light recently, a triumph for the FBI and other federal authorities.

McVeigh gained an extra 26 days of life after the FBI revealed shortly before his originally scheduled May 16 execution that it had discovered more than 4,400 pages of documents it should have turned over to the defense before his 1997 trial.