ATLANTA - Rationalizing his terrorism to the end - the big, bad government made him do it - Timothy McVeigh was just the fellow to restart the federal death penalty after 38 years of disuse.
The matter, however, begins to get dicier with the next in line.
As a candidate for execution, McVeigh had even some death-penalty opponents ready to make an exception: Murderer of 168, guilty by his own admission, unrepentant. And white, middle class and well brought up, he spared the restart of federal executions any immediate second thoughts about racial or social bias in the system.
Next up, however, is Juan Raul Garza, sentenced for murder under the drug kingpin laws and scheduled to die Tuesday.
Garza is more typical of federal death-row inmates, who are minorities in such disproportionate number that former Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a review.
Ms. Reno's successor, John Ashcroft, announced just days before McVeigh was killed that the review had concluded there was no bias, the plain numbers to the apparent contrary notwithstanding.
That is a conclusion that has to be counted as foregone from the administration of George W. Bush, the happy executioner of Texas. The Ashcroft study, at best quick and dirty, only looked at cases recommended for the death penalty, not at the full universe of cases that were potentially death-eligible where prosecutorial discretion is at play.
At least the attorney general is said to be allowing a further, presumably more detailed study by the National Institute of Justice, the department's research arm. We may get a fuller picture from that.
Meantime, the data are stark. Of the 20 persons on federal death row, only two are white. Since 1988, 75 percent of federal death penalty prosecutions have been against minority defendants.
Whites are twice as likely as minority defendants to be allowed to avoid the death penalty through plea bargaining.
And defendants are likely to be targeted for execution more on the basis of where the crime was committed than on the basis of the crime itself. There are huge disparities among the 94 federal districts.
Between 1995 and 2000, just five districts accounted for 42 percent of the cases submitted for death-penalty prosecution. U.S. attorneys in 21 states have never sought death penalties, but in a handful of jurisdictions the rate runs as high as 50 percent of potential cases. (And in Texas - of course! - it exceeds 50 percent.)
But put the numbers aside.
Taking up stately killing again in the name of all Americans, our country places itself outside the common practice of nearly every other developed, industrial nation. And we have reopened the federal death house after almost a decade of steadily falling crime rates.
To what good end?
McVeigh said he had to kill to make a point. We have now said something of the same.
McVeigh's crime left 168 grieving families.
You and I have just made that 169.
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.