Restarting The Federal Execution Machine

Death Chamber Opened Again After 38 Years

A rally in Terre Haute the day of McVeigh's execution
By: Jesse Sharkey

The Texecutioner didn’t waste any time getting the death machine started at his new job.

After 38 years since the last federal execution was carried out, George W. Bush’s Department of Justice carried out two executions in just over a week in June.

Like in 1977, when serial killer Gary Gilmore was the first to face capital punishment, the federal government could hardly have found a more repulsive character than Timothy McVeigh to act as the wedge for reopening the federal death chambers.

But as the events of this spring showed, the death penalty system hasn’t shaken off the cloud of questions and doubts around it. McVeigh’s execution was an around-the-clock, pro-execution media blitz, with numerous dramatic voice-overs about how his victims could at last find peace. But if law-and-order politicians hoped to use the momentum to rebuild support for the death penalty, they fell short. The FBI’s mishandling of evidence in the case added to questions about racial disparities on federal death row, so recent polls show support for the death penalty still falling.

The McVeigh case has an important lesson: Even in the highest profile case in decades, the prosecution still withholds evidence. We’re left to wonder what chance a more typical defendant has to receive a fair trial. Consider that McVeigh’s lawyers had just a couple of weeks to examine 4,000 pages of new documents, and when they asked for more time, most legal observers thought that a stay was a forgone conclusion. But Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference that sent a very clear signal: The Bush administration wanted McVeigh to die as scheduled.

Although the mainstream press seems unconcerned, the other troubling aspect of the FBI scandal is that testimony relating to the most unbelievable part of the government’s case -- the claim that McVeigh acted alone -- was left out of 45 separate regional office reports. The FBI says that these documents, primarily transcripts and reports from eyewitness interviews, weren’t relevant to the case. But isn’t it up to the jury, not the prosecution, to decide what’s relevant and what’s not?

And what about the interviews? One witness said that McVeigh, Terry Nichols and a third unidentified man came into his real estate office to inquire about buying a piece of property -- where the third man did most of the talking. But the jury never heard his testimony either, because the government later discounted it as unreliable.

As governor of Texas, Bush was only too willing to put Gary Graham to death based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. But President Death had few qualms about sweeping certain eyewitness accounts under the rug in the McVeigh case.

McVeigh was hardly representative of who is on federal death row. Juan Raul Garza, a Mexican marijuana dealer who was executed June 19, only eight days after McVeigh, was far more typical.

Garza’s lawyers appealed for a stay of execution on the grounds of the racism of the federal death penalty system -- where 89 percent of death row prisoners are nonwhite. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, fully 75 percent of death row cases prosecuted under "drug kingpin" provisions since 1988 have been against blacks and Latinos!

Additionally, to ensure a death sentence, prosecutors raised allegations that Garza committed murders in Mexico, even though he was never charged for them. Later, during the sentencing phase, jurors were never told that life in prison without parole was an alternative to the death penalty.

With the executions of McVeigh and Garza, Bush and company have shown us their willingness to jump-start the federal machinery of death. But Bush and his administration can be stopped.

During his recent trip to Europe, Bush encountered anti-death penalty protesters everywhere he went. We need to keep exposing the barbarity of the death penalty -- and build pressure to abolish it.