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Tim McVeigh: Should He Die?

June 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Should Timothy McVeigh die for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing? That question went before the jury today in Denver as the sentencing phase got underway. Tim Sullivan, a senior correspondent with Court TV, was there, as he has been since the trial began. He is joined tonight by Henry Hudson, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern district of Virginia, now in private practice, and Steven Hawkins, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Tim Sullivan first. The day began with some words to the jury by Judge Matsch, correct?

TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: That’s right, Jim. Judge Matsch told the jury. He said that this is a decision they have to make based on reason, based on the evidence and the testimony they hear, and not based on emotion, not based on any passion for vengeance. He told them, “You are the conscience of the community, and the decision you make here must be a moral judgment, not a decision that will be reliant on emotion.”

JIM LEHRER: And then the prosecution laid out its basic argument for death in this case, right?

TIM SULLIVAN: That’s right, Jim. Prosecutor Pat Ryan, who is the U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City, then addressed the jury for about an hour. And he told the jury, “You know, we are obligated to present some information here to you about the people who are the victims and the survivors of this crime.” He said, “It’s going to be difficult for us to present, and it’s going to be painful for you to hear, but you have a duty to hear it and to make a decision.”

He explained the aggravating factors that the government says they will prove against Timothy McVeigh, such as premeditation and serious maiming and injuring of people, as well as the 168 deaths that this jury has found that he caused. He also talked to the jury a little bit about the children. Nineteen children, of course, were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, none of them over the age of six. And Mr. Ryan talked to the jury about the six children who survived.

These were all children who were in a daycare center in that building called America’s Kids. And he told the jury that they would bring in a videotape of three of the children who have been seriously injured to show the jury what their lives are like now as a result of this bombing, one of them being a young boy who has had brain surgery seven times, Jim, to try to remove ceiling tiles from his brain, and because of that brain injury, he’s lost the use of his right arm.

JIM LEHRER: And that was just in the opening argument, right?

TIM SULLIVAN: That was just the opening argument.

JIM LEHRER: And then it really did get emotional. Tell us about that. Tell us what happened then.

TIM SULLIVAN: It certainly did, Jim. You know, one extraordinary moment this morning was before court was even convened, the lead prosecutor, Joe Hartzler, talked to some of the families and their supporters from Oklahoma City in the courtroom, and he told them, “This is going to be extremely difficult. It’s going to be a lot tougher than the trial was. You have to steel yourselves for what you’re about to hear.” And they certainly did need to do that, Jim.

We heard today from rescue workers, one of them a police officer from Oklahoma City named Jerry Flowers, who was one of the first police officers who responded to that scene. He talked about how rescue workers were digging through the rubble–at times with their hands–trying to locate a voice they heard. He said, “We heard a woman crying, and we were trying to locate that voice.” And they were digging through the rubble. He said it went on for a long time. They kept losing the voice. They couldn’t tell where it was. And he said, ultimately, they never did find that woman. He also talked about the–the human chain of people–sort of an old-time fire brigade of people–that we all saw on television; that passed survivors and victims down out of the rubble, down to the safety of the street.

He talked about seeing dead bodies pass along that line. He talked about a moment when he saw a woman up ahead on the line–ahead from where he was–who was clearly alive as they were passing her down from I think the third or the fourth floor. And he said to himself, thank God, I’ll finally get to help somebody out of this building who’s still alive. But by the time the woman got to him, he said she had died.

JIM LEHRER: What–there were other things too, Tim. What was the reaction? The judge had said don’t be emotional. But how is it possible not to be emotional with that kind of thing going on?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, it just isn’t possible, Jim, of course. By the time Patrick Ryan had even finished his opening statement half of the jurors were in tears already.

JIM LEHRER: The jurors were in tears?

TIM SULLIVAN: The jurors, yes. I counted at least six of them who were crying. And that’s something we hadn’t seen before in this case. We’ve often seen one or two crying at a time and maybe another one or two crying later, or on a different day–six of them crying by the end of that opening statement. And, of course, throughout the day we’ve heard from people who lost husbands, who lost daughters, who lost grandchildren, and there’s a gallery in there of a hundred spectators.

And easily half of them have been crying off and on all day long, reporters included, and even occasionally one of the attorneys can be seen crying, just listening to this testimony of people whose lives have obviously, have been destroyed. And, of course, the amazing thing about this case is that there are so many of them, just one after another.

JIM LEHRER: And the point of doing this, the prosecutors are doing this to show aggravation, right, to show that these were real people who suffered, these 168 people, and their families and whatever, right?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, Jim, that’s right. They have to prove that there are several aggravating factors against Timothy McVeigh. And they have to prove these aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. And, as I said, they include premeditation, death during the–or as a result of the transport of–interstate transport–excuse me–of explosives, and also that law enforcement officers were specifically targeted and several other factors.

Now, one thing is, of course, the defense probably next week will get a chance to put on mitigating factors. We don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, because they didn’t make an opening statement today. The defense reserved their opening statement. They’ll make it later on when the prosecution is done presenting its case.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you, Tim. We’ll be back here. Now, to Misters Hudson and Hawkins. The basic question that the jury has to resolve–and I’m going to ask you that same question, beginning with you, Mr. Hudson, does Timothy McVeigh deserve to die for what he has been found guilty of?

HENRY HUDSON, Former U.S. Attorney: Jim, if ever there was a case in modern legal history that warranted the death penalty, it’s this case. You have a person that deliberately planned to kill people. I know there’s a lot of concern about the number of witnesses taking the stand to talk about impact, but this is what he intended to do. This is the public statement he wanted to make: A hundred and sixty-eight people were killed. Many people were maimed. Thousands of families have had their lives changed. If we’re going to deter this type of offense, he has got to get the death penalty.

JIM LEHRER: Does he have to get the death penalty, Mr. Hawkins?

STEVEN HAWKINS, Death Penalty Opponent: No, he does not, Jim. And, in fact, what makes any one murder any different from the other? I mean, if a person loses one family member to violence, whether that’s in a single, isolated incident, or a hundred and sixty-eight people all at the same time, that’s still pain, that’s still suffering for the murder victim’s family.

There are practical issues here that make the McVeigh case not as easy as it seems. For example, if there were other people involved, and there are indications certainly that there were. The New York Times talks about that today. Keeping Timothy McVeigh alive helps to expose and I think bring more people to justice in time if he’s willing to cooperate and practice–

JIM LEHRER: In other words, if you execute him, you’ll be–he will take to the grave whatever secrets he has.

STEVEN HAWKINS: Exactly. And from our perspective, the moral consideration is not to engage in state killing, to stoop to the level of Timothy McVeigh. We don’t want to make him a martyr for–for other right wing actions and terrorist actions in this country.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s take these arguments one at a time. First of all, it’s just a practical matter. He dies, and we’ll never know anything else about what he did or did not do.

HENRY HUDSON: Well, Jim, I respect Steven’s view, but, however, there’s no indication that Timothy McVeigh’s going to cooperate with the government. He has nothing but contempt for the government. There is no indication that he will ever cooperate whatsoever. That, to me, is just not a satisfactory justification.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, Mr. Hawkins? There’s no indication this man is ever going to say anything.

STEVEN HAWKINS: Well, he frankly has never had much of an opportunity. Right after the Oklahoma City bombing the president went on the airwaves saying that punishment would be swift and certain. The attorney general went on saying that this was a case for the death penalty. So he was, I think, very quickly put in the position of being tight-lipped.

JIM LEHRER: What about the other argument Mr. Hawkins made, which is as matter of morality, we–we society is going to do the same thing to Tim McVeigh that he did to those 168 people in Oklahoma City?

HENRY HUDSON: Well you know, Jim, as a society we speak as a majority. And I noted with a great deal of enthusiasm last night and interest the poll that CNN had where 68 percent of the people in America–even folks that are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty think it’s appropriate in this case because it is the most obstructive case, the most malicious case we’ve seen in modern times.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that first of all the basic premise that this is a single word–if there is ever going to be a death penalty, this is the case to use it on?

STEVEN HAWKINS: No. I disagree with that. There have certainly been other heinous crimes and, again, I–I don’t think any of us can subjectively judge what is more heinous, what is more deserving of–of the death penalty. There are people–you know–in this country who would–who actually support what Timothy McVeigh has done and don’t see it as heinous. Of course, I don’t believe that. I, of course, see it as a terrible crime. But that goes to show that it is impossible for any of us to put a subjective value on this.

JIM LEHRER: What about the martyr idea; that Timothy McVeigh dies, he becomes a martyr of the movement that–of possibly the movement of people who agree with him, whoever they are?

HENRY HUDSON: Jim, I don’t see him connected to any particular movement. I mean, there may be a few people in America that agree with what he did, but he deserves the death penalty to send a message to those people that no matter whether you think that, the law does not allow you to carry it out. And secondly–secondly, Jim, we talk about deterrence to crime.

Maybe we can’t come up with specific statistics that show that the death penalty is a deterrence, but every one of us, as an intuitive, common sense reaction to this, knows that sending someone like McVeigh to the gas chamber will deter others from committing a similar crime. It’s common sense and logic.

JIM LEHRER: Common sense and logic, Mr. Hawkins?

STEVEN HAWKINS: I was just on a show yesterday with Jim Fotus, who heads the Law Alliance of–America Law Enforcement Alliance, and he readily conceded there is no deterrent value here. A terrorist is not going to be deterred. Quite the contrary. This may actually be fuel for the fire.

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

STEVEN HAWKINS: Well, Timothy McVeigh, as we know, acted on the day of April 19th as a result of Waco. He is sentenced to death, if he is executed, that event may become a rallying cry for other terrorist activity. We certainly see in other countries–for example, Egypt, where terrorists have been executed quickly–that that has not in any way deterred terroristic activity. And so I think there’s a lesson there.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s bring Tim Sullivan back into this. Tim, do you anticipate this is the kind of argument that we’re going to–you and others are going to be hearing in that courtroom?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, I think part of it is, Jim. I think–I think we’re going to hear several arguments from the defense before this is over, and I think part of their argument may very well be that, look, there were other people involved in this. The government has acknowledged that in the indictment. The indictment names McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and others unknown. And the jury has heard testimony about other unidentified people: John Doe 2 and others who may have been involved in this thing.

Also, the defense could argue that McVeigh’s role in this was relatively minor and that other people had a bigger role and are more culpable and will not be executed, so, therefore, he should not be. That is one of the statutory mitigating factors that they might be permitted to argue. So it’s possible that they will do that.

JIM LEHRER: And all they have to do is convince one of these twelve jurors of that, correct?

TIM SULLIVAN: That’s right, Jim. The verdict for death must be unanimous, and so must the verdict for life, but if they don’t agree, it’ll go to the judge, and the judge would, I think under the sentencing guidelines give Tim McVeigh life anyway. But, yes–

JIM LEHRER: There’s no hung–in other words, there’s no hung jury in this. There’s no mistrial over this particular issue of sentencing, correct?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, that is correct, Jim, because if they can’t reach an agreement, it will go to the judge for sentencing, and the judge will sentence him according to law. And that law, depending on how you interpret it, but most–most of the attorneys looking at it agree that it would mean life.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And the process here–Mr. Hawkins, what is your view, and is it possible to weigh life in prison without parole versus death?

STEVEN HAWKINS: I think so. I mean, Timothy McVeigh is 29 years old. One of the realities, I think, is that life in prison is actually very hard and difficult and very punitive for somebody his age. If he was in federal maximum security, they have a facility such as that in Colorado, twenty-three and a half hours a day, locked up, very few visitations, thinking about this for the rest of his life, that’s punishment.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Hudson?

HENRY HUDSON: I agree–but he’s deserving of more punishment than that. And, Jim, this guy is going to have to remain in segregation the balance of his entire life. He’ll never be in general population. He is someone that the correctional staff are going to have to keep an eye on 24 hours a day. He is just too dangerous to even put in a correctional setting. He killed 168 people.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, Tim, how long do you think this will take, how many days?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, Jim, we expect the prosecutors will be finished putting on their case by–probably by the end of Friday. They say they have forty to forty-five witnesses. They’re up to number sixteen or seventeen right now. So they should be done by Friday. The defense, we expect, would begin next Monday, and they have at least two days and maybe as many as five for the defense to put on their case.

JIM LEHRER: So we’re talking two weeks probably?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Tim, gentlemen, thank you very much.