Ashcroft postpones McVeigh's execution

U.S. attorney general gives lawyers time to read files FBI lost

Need for `basic fairness'

Death now delayed additional 26 days, May 16 to June 11

May 12, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John D. Ashcroft granted Timothy J. McVeigh a stay of execution yesterday until June 11 to allow his attorneys time to sift through thousands of pages of documents the FBI failed to turn over before McVeigh's 1997 trial for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Maintaining that nothing in the documents would contradict the jury's finding of guilt or McVeigh's admission of responsibility, Ashcroft said he nonetheless felt compelled out of respect "for the rule of law" to postpone what would be the first federal execution since 1963.

"If any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice," Ashcroft said at an afternoon news conference.

"Our system of justice requires basic fairness, evenhandedness and dispassionate evaluation of the evidence and the facts."

Ashcroft said he had rescheduled McVeigh's execution at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., from May 16 to June 11 - a 26-day delay. He also said he had ordered the inspector general of the Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation into what is the latest in a series of embarrassing foul-ups by the FBI.

His decision to postpone the execution threw into disarray plans for a historic, emotional event. Aside from the 1,600 reporters expected to converge on Terre Haute, several hundred survivors and victims' relatives had been preparing to go to Oklahoma City, Okla., to watch the execution on closed-circuit television.

Many of them expressed disbelief and anger when told that the execution would be delayed.

"We needed this death penalty," said Aren Almon Kok, whose baby daughter came to symbolize the 1995 blast through a photograph of her in the arms of a firefighter. "For someone to make this mistake - to find them [the documents] less than a week before he dies - is unbelievably unfair."

Speaking to reporters later in the day, President Bush said he supported Ashcroft's decision. Though he acknowledged that the delay would "create some frustration" for survivors and victims' relatives, he said it was important to ensure that the administration of the death penalty be above reproach.

`Solemn obligation'

"We have a solemn obligation to make sure that the case has been handled in full accordance with all the guarantees of our Constitution," Bush said. "It is very important for our country to make sure that in death penalty cases, people are treated fairly."

McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 for the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

The blast, which killed 168 people and injured hundreds more, was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.

After filing an initial challenge to his conviction, McVeigh waived his right to further appeals and resigned himself to being executed. He also confessed to the bombing in a recently published book written by two journalists.

`Keeping options open'

But the discovery of the documents, coupled with the delay of his execution, raised the possibility that he might renew his legal challenges. Although his attorneys said they would have to review the documents before a decision was reached, they made clear that McVeigh had not ruled out a new round of appeals.

"Mr. McVeigh is very resilient and capable of evaluating new information and making decisions based on that information," his attorney, Rob Nigh, told reporters outside the federal prison in Terre Haute where McVeigh is being held. "He is keeping all of his options open."

Lawyers for co-defendant Terry Nichols said they planned to file a new appeal with the Supreme Court on behalf of their client.

Nichols was convicted of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison. He also faces state charges of capital murder, and prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Effect on trial denied

Yesterday's developments came one day after it was reported that the FBI had inadvertently withheld 3,135 pages of investigative documents and other evidence from McVeigh's defense attorneys.

The items were reportedly found this week by FBI archivists during a manual search of records relating to the deadly blast. They were apparently missed during searches of computerized files, in part because of the bureau's outdated computer records system.

The materials, which have since been delivered to defense attorneys, include witness interviews, reports and correspondence, as well as photographs and tapes.

Justice Department officials said none of the documents, if released earlier, would have changed the outcome of McVeigh's trial, a point Ashcroft emphasized several times during his news conference. The officials also maintained that many of the documents were duplicates of records that the defense had already been given.

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