WASHINGTON - A federal judge in Denver rejected Timothy J. McVeigh's request for a stay of execution yesterday, ruling that documents recently released by the FBI do not cast doubt on his responsibility for the Oklahoma City bombing.
The decision, which surprised some legal experts who thought the judge might give McVeigh's attorneys additional time to review the 4,400 pages of documents, is not the final word on whether the execution will proceed as planned Monday morning.
McVeigh's attorneys said they would file an appeal today with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which could rule on the matter within hours of receiving the case. That decision could be appealed by either side to the U.S. Supreme Court, which usually acts quickly on death penalty cases.
But the ruling by Judge Richard Matsch significantly increased the odds that Mc-Veigh will be put to death by lethal injection Monday at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., a point that McVeigh's attorneys seemed aware of as they left the courthouse yesterday.
"We are extremely disappointed in the court's ruling today," said McVeigh's lead attorney, Robert Nigh, who made a brief statement before breaking away to prepare his client's appeal. "We apologize we cannot answer your questions, but as you are well aware, we have a lot of work to do."
Attorney General John Ashcroft praised the court's decision, saying that the government has "never had a doubt about the guilt of Timothy McVeigh."
Ashcroft acknowledged that his decision last month to delay the execution so that defense lawyers could sort through thousands of pages of newly disclosed papers had been difficult for survivors and victims' families to accept.
But he said the delay had been necessary to vindicate the justice system and put to rest concerns about the government's handling of the case. Matsch's decision, he said, achieved both goals.
"I believe the ruling of the court in Denver, Colorado, makes unmistakably clear that we not only have a guilty defendant, but that the fairness and innocence of the system is sufficient and is complete and that it merits the trust and confidence of the American people," Ashcroft said.
Matsch issued his ruling a little more than an hour after a hearing at which attorneys for both sides presented arguments. McVeigh's attorneys said the FBI knew six months ago that it had failed to turn over documents to the defense before McVeigh's 1997 trial, but that it chose not to reveal that until six days before his initial May 16 execution date.
McVeigh's lawyers asked Matsch for extra time to review the documents, maintaining that a complete analysis could point to others who may have been involved in the 1995 bombing.
Prosecutors countered that McVeigh waived his right to further appeals when he declined to challenge a district court ruling last year that upheld his conviction and sentence. They also argued that nothing in the newly released documents undermined the jury's conclusion that he was guilty and deserved the death penalty.
McVeigh all but conceded that point, they said, by arguing only that the documents would point to additional participants, not that they would prove his innocence.
Matsch, who presided over Mc-Veigh's trial, said he found it "shocking" that the FBI had withheld documents in the case until last month. Nonetheless, he ruled that McVeigh was not entitled to a stay of execution because his guilt was firmly established at trial.
"I find there is no good cause to delay the execution," Matsch said in a ruling from the bench. "Whatever may in time be disclosed about possible involvement of others in this bombing, it will not change the fact that Timothy McVeigh was the instrument of death and destruction."
Many experts had predicted that Matsch would at least grant a short stay so that McVeigh's lawyers would have enough time to make their best case for a new trial or sentencing hearing.
But the judge ultimately had little room to maneuver. Under the tight legal standards imposed by Congress for reopening death penalty appeals, a defendant must provide evidence that strongly suggests he is innocent. And though McVeigh's attorneys have sharply criticized the government for withholding the documents, they have yet to claim that their client is innocent.
Matsch also made clear that he felt little sympathy for McVeigh, saying that McVeigh was at war with the United States and that his actions had affected real people, "not some abstraction, not some alien force."
McVeigh was convicted of 11 counts of murder in 1997 for the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast, which killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured hundreds more, was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. Another defendant, Terry L. Nichols, was convicted of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison, though he still faces the possibility of a death sentence in Oklahoma state court.