McVeigh case is worsened by FBI

May 16, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- As a lord high executioner, Uncle Sam is a bust.

It's hard to see how even the woodsman who was supposed to snuff out Snow White at the evil queen's orders could have bungled the job any worse than the feds have done with the scheduled execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The FBI's failure to disclose a host of documents related to the affair, its tardy delivery to McVeigh's defense lawyers and the consequent delay in his forced trip to the great beyond are only the most recent of the comedy of errors that has marked this unnecessarily hyped episode.

Attorney General John Ashcroft had no recourse but to order a postponement to give McVeigh's lawyers time to review the newly located materials. Mr. Ashcroft has insisted that "these documents are not going to create any basis, that I can in any way foresee, for a new trial." But it's not inconceivable that the legal eagles might come across something to convince a judge to reopen the case.

The defense lawyers have already said that McVeigh's admission of guilt and statements that he wanted a speedy administering of the death penalty rather than spending his life in a prison cell were made before he knew of the missing papers. He could well have a more optimistic view of his now-extended future in light of the latest development.

The FBI already is cast as the latest villain in the piece because of its careless handling of the McVeigh-related documents. But neither has the Justice Department covered itself with garlands of roses in its handling of what has become a public circus over the impending final solution to the McVeigh question.

The decision to permit closed-circuit television viewing in Oklahoma City of the lethal injection of the man for a select audience of family members of the bombing victims and other special guests could be worse. They could have decided to air the big event on "Good Morning America" or some other network mass-audience outlet. But don't be too surprised if a bootleg video finds its way outside the viewing room for the edification of the greater citizenry.

Then there's the reserved seat at the Indiana prison for novelist and essayist Gore Vidal to write an eyewitness account of the countdown and departure of the convicted mass murderer for a glossy magazine. Shades of signing up Ernest Hemingway to cover a bullfight. Perhaps the low point came last weekend when one of the television news shows interviewed family survivors and heard heartfelt complaints about the FBI screwup and the consequent delay in the execution, prolonging what already has been a horren- dously painful experience in their lives.

One woman invited to the television viewing complained that McVeigh was getting all the breaks. She and others slated to watch his last moments would have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the viewing room in advance, she said. But McVeigh would get to sleep until 7!

Who would have thought that the Oklahoma City bombing case, in which 168 people, including 19 children, were killed, would become a poster child for the strongest foes of the death penalty? Doubtless we will be hearing more about the inflicting of inhumane treatment on McVeigh for the uncertainty of his date with death.

A couple of weeks back, a minor furor was created by the airing on some public radio stations of tapes of witness descriptions of past electric-chair executions at Georgia prisons by prison officials monitoring them. It triggered a debate over whether it constituted the legitimate reporting under the First Amendment of historic material or rank sensationalism that had no place on the public airwaves. Such is the level of public sensibility these days.

One can only hope there will be no further botching in the McVeigh case. A reopening of it, if somehow warranted by the discovery of important information not revealed by the FBI at the time of the trial, will surely also reopen psychological wounds in relatives of the victims not yet fully healed. Whatever the outcome, the country should be spared any more of such throwbacks to the days of public executions as public entertainment.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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