Execution debate divides Okla. City

Survivors' request to watch raises hard legal questions

April 05, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For many people whose lives were ravaged by the Oklahoma City bombing, it will never be enough to hear the words "Timothy McVeigh is dead." As survivors, families and friends of the victims prepare for next month's execution of the convicted terrorist, some are petitioning the U.S. government for a chance to view his execution with their own eyes.

If the Justice Department grants a request to broadcast the execution of McVeigh from the death chamber via closed-circuit television, at least 250 survivors and friends and relatives of the bombing victims say they would like to watch - setting the stage for the largest mass-viewing of an American execution in modern times.

The request poses hard legal questions: Some experts argue that the McVeigh execution, live on a big screen, would set a precedent for even wider audiences at future executions. But others say limiting witnesses at the McVeigh execution would violate the legal rights of an extraordinary number of people who can rightfully claim the status of victim.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people. Six years later, the nation is still grappling with how to close this brutal chapter in American history.

The Justice Department is weighing whether to sanction a broadcast of the execution and, if so, where to do so. Two possibilities: a theater near the federal death row facility in Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh is scheduled to die by lethal injection May 16, or a guarded federal building in Oklahoma City, where survivors watched a closed-circuit broadcast of the McVeigh trial four years ago.

In the coming days, Attorney General John Ashcroft is expected to travel to Oklahoma City to meet with interested parties to examine how a closed-circuit feed might be broadcast privately.

But the broadcast itself has left Oklahoma City torn. Of the 1,100 people listed as "qualified witnesses" to the execution - survivors, relatives and friends of the victims - less than a quarter have asked to see a death row broadcast.

Kathleen Treanor, whose 4-year-old daughter Ashley was one of 19 children killed in the blast, is one of the relatives trying to watch the feed. Though she admits at times wanting to "throw the switch" on McVeigh herself, she believes the broadcast is less about revenge than relief - the relief that comes from seeing that the killer is gone.

"I'm a very visual person, and I need visual confirmation that this man is no longer going to be any harm to my family," says Treanor. "I'll have a sense of relief knowing this man will no longer have any influence over my life."

From the other side is Bud Welch, who is calling any broadcast of the McVeigh execution "barbaric." Welch, a gas station owner whose 23-year-old daughter Julie Marie died in the bombing, has toured the country for a year arguing against the death penalty and predicts that victims who want closure from a broadcast may only find more rage.

"The few people in Oklahoma City full of vengeance won't be one damn bit better on May 17 than they were on May 15," he says. "Anyone who thinks in this execution they'll get some kind of healing is going to be surprised."

Debate over the execution - and whether it will be broadcast - is one of the many old wounds bleeding in Oklahoma City these days. This week's release of a biography of McVeigh, "American Terrorist," has so enraged survivors that the local Red Cross and the memorial built for victims have refused any proceeds from the sales.

Over the past decade, media outlets have tried to tape executions - so far without success. In 1992, a San Francisco public television station sought to film the gas-chamber execution of killer Robert Alton Harris. Talk show host Phil Donahue sued to broadcast the 1994 execution of a North Carolina prisoner in an effort to make a case against capital punishment. And Worldwide Web Entertainment Network Inc., whose Web site receives 200 million hits a day, is seeking to broadcast the McVeigh execution. McVeigh himself asked in a letter to The Daily Oklahoman that his execution be aired on public television.

The ethics that surround a limited broadcast to victims' witnesses are so murky that death penalty activists are abandoning traditional battle lines. Death penalty advocates, for instance, don't necessarily support a broadcast.

"It just seems kind of crude and unnecessary," says Louis Pojman, a staunch defender of the death penalty who teaches moral philosophy at West Point. "I do think the death penalty can be morally justified, but I don't think it should be made into anything grotesque or pander to our vengeful and violent emotions."

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