The move comes five days before McVeigh was scheduled to die by lethal injection, and one day after the FBI revealed it had discovered 3,135 documents that had not been turned over to McVeigh’s legal defense team.
Explaining that the FBI failed to comply with an agreement to hand over all documents in the case, Ashcroft said he wanted “justice to be carried our fairly” and “if any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice.”
Speaking just an hour after Ashcroft, President Bush said it was “very important for our country to make sure that in death penalty cases people are treated fairly.”
Ashcroft said the delay would allow McVeigh’s lawyers “ample and adequate time to review these documents and to take any action they might deem appropriate.” He said the Justice Department would begin an investigation into the mishap.
Lawyer Rob Nigh told reporters this afternoon McVeigh was “distressed” by the Justice Department’s revelations and is “keeping his options open” as to whether to challenge his conviction.
The FBI discovered the error while pulling together more than one million documents related to the case from 45 FBI offices. The materials include FBI reports, interview notes, photographs and tapes.
The Justice Department said Thursday the misplaced documents did not create “any reasonable doubt about McVeigh’s guilt and do not contradict his repeated confessions of guilt.”
The Justice Department does not need a formal stay from the courts to delay the execution. McVeigh’s lawyers were trying to determine if he would request a delay himself, and their next step remained unclear.
McVeigh, 33, had waived any further death sentence appeals and decided not to seek clemency from President Bush.
In a recent book, he admitted responsibility for the April 19, 1995 bombing. The blast at Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 and injured hundreds of others.
McVeigh was scheduled to die by lethal injection at a Terre Haute, Ind., federal prison next Wednesday. He was convicted of murder and conspiracy in 1997 for the bombing.
Co-defendant Terry Nichols was convicted of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter for his involvement and sentenced to life in prison. The documents discovered yesterday have also been given to Nichols’ lawyers, who have indicated they plan to file an appeal with the Supreme Court.