World

ANATOMY OF AN EXECUTION

Robert Sheppard May 14 2001
World

ANATOMY OF AN EXECUTION

Robert Sheppard May 14 2001

ANATOMY OF AN EXECUTION

World

Robert Sheppard

In a dewey, verdant field in rural Indiana, a few thousand people will pass a dark spring night next week waiting for the sun to come up and a man to die. Inside an otherwise nondescript brick building a few hundred metres away, about 40 others will bear direct witness to the execution, from the four glassed-in viewing rooms at the federal penitentiary just outside this small midwestern town. Another 300 or so, family members of the 168 men, women and children Timothy McVeigh killed with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City six years ago in the worst act of terrorism on American soil, will take in his final moments on closed-circuit television at a second prison in Oklahoma.

But make no mistake—although only the designated will actually see McVeigh succumb to a dose of lethal chemicals at shortly after 7 a.m. central time on Wednesday, May 16, this is a public execution of the first order. An entire nation will be watching for the final word, much of it on breakfast TV.

On the flowing grassy knolls that surround the prison proper, a fairgrounds-like concoction of satellite trucks, wedding-sized tents, cable trails and cellphone towers is being assembled to service nearly 1,400 members of the news media, many there for an almost week-long deathwatch. Given the logistics involved, some are calling it Americas first catered execution.

Just after midnight on May 16, buses will begin trucking in anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand demonstrators—the pro-death penalty crowd and the abolitionists—to designated “processing points” (as warden Harley Lappin likes to call them) on the 33-acre prison site. The groups will be at least 500 m apart, connected by makeshift trails through the fields to be travelled only by accredited media on golf carts—no more than three carts per news organization is the rule Lappin has laid down. Grief counsellors will be on hand for those family members who witness the execution; public relations officials for those who want to be guided to the media tent. The entire event has been meticulously planned for

months by at least three different federal departments and local authorities—hyper-organization creeping in where solemnity fears to tread. Leave aside for the moment the emotionally charged debate about capital punishment—Americans are more than willing to take that one on. The unspoken element of the McVeigh execution is that it is a triumph of inclusivity, where both the victims’ rights movement and the mainstream press have joined those with their hands on the syringe in the formal planning. Throw in a dollop of ever-present midwestern politeness, with its constant “y’alls” and milk-fed graciousness, and what’s left is a kind of McDeath, an extraordinary event made ordinary with a nod to transparency and conveyor-belt efficiency.

Of course, the McVeigh execution is highly unusual. In recent years, with the annual number of executions in the United States creeping up into the high 90s—nearly two per week, most of them in southern states like Texas and Virginia—the death penalty has become a topic of heated discussion in many quarters. But there has never been

anything like this. Across the United States, columnists and TV pundits rage about whether the 33-yearold McVeigh should die—quickly or slowly—or be forced to waste away in a federal pen, Canadian-style, so he doesn’t become a martyr for his cause. “Execution’s too easy for him,” says the cheery lady at the checkout counter at a Terre Haute motel. “That’s just exacdy what he wants.” One side debate: the American Society of Newspaper Editors turned aside White House pleas to tone down the McVeigh coverage, saying the media doesn’t need a civics lesson from a President who presided over 131 executions during the five years he was governor of Texas.

And so the hype picks up its pace. All last week, local television stations broadcast home videos of McVeigh as a youngster—a Boy Scout who went bad. A court action to allow Internet and pay TV broadcast of the execution was turned down by a judge, but some public stations and the ABC TV program Nightline aired recently acquired audiotapes of executions that took place in Georgia between 1983 and 1998, recordings that showed all too clearly the mundane bureaucracy of a public death.

And in Terre Haute (population 59,000), ground zero of this latest drama, the good citizens have been subject to an ever-increasing drumbeat of alarm (will militia fanatics attack them for being host to this event?) and worse: constantly having to explain themselves to a descending horde of foreigners who can’t understand America’s fascination with capital punishment. “They say you have to play the cards you’re dealt,” Judy Anderson, the county commissioner for Terre Haute, said recendy at a ceremony to plant 168 redbud saplings, the state tree of Oklahoma, in her county. “I know the whole situation is a necessary evil that we have to deal with.”

Terre Haute didn’t ask to be the site of the only federal execution chamber in the United States. That was a twist of geography. In the early 1990s, when the U.S. government decided to consolidate its relative handful of federal death-row inmates (20 versus the approximately 4,000 in the individual states) in one institution, it chose the

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U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute because it was the most central federal jail in the country. The Crossroads of America, it says on Indiana licence plates. A section of the 60year-old jail that used to house Cuban detainees was cleared out, and two years ago death-row prisoners, including its most famous,

Inmate McVeigh as prison officials call him, were moved in. Coincidentally, it is only a short drive south of Terre Haute where the last public hanging in the United States took place in 1936 at Owensboro,

Ky: a boisterous crowd of 20,000 turned up to watch the execution of a black man for raping and killing an older white woman, and the ensuing revelry at the event caused the rest of the country to turn away in revulsion.

For the Canadian visitor, the culture shock is jarring. It’s not just the carnival atmosphere that some are bringing to the event, or the mantra you can overhear on the street: he did it, he’s unrepentant, he deserves to pay the price. It’s the fact that talk of the death penalty just seems to wash about casually in everyday discussion or on TV and the radio, like the price of gas.

Those who lost family in the Oklahoma City bombing—a re-

‘Who is not profiting from this? Stores, hotels? Don’t get on me because we thought of something new. McVeigh, he don’t care—he’s ruined thousands of lives’

venge act, said McVeigh, for federal agents storming a militia compound in Waco, Tex., in 1993, where 80 people were killed— routinely pop up on both sides of the issue. Some have befriended McVeigh’s father, Bill, a retired autoplant worker in Buffalo, N.Y. One women who lost two grandchildren in the blast has spent her time tracing McVeigh’s footsteps in the weeks leading up to the attack—even to the point of sleeping in the same motel bed he did—researching this for a documentary. She doesn’t want McVeigh executed now because she feels he may be part of a larger conspiracy that has yet to be uncovered.

Even in the darkest days of Paul Bernardo or child killer Clifford Olson, there was never any of this, never even any sustained public debate about the death penalty in Canada. “I certainly never heard or felt anything like this kind of emotion,” observes Toronto lawyer Timothy Danson, who represented families of both Bernardo’s and Olson’s victims. “We’re just so different from the Americans in this regard.” The newest argument making the rounds is that all the publicity surrounding the McVeigh execution is justified because it will bring closure to the bereaved families of Oklahoma City—some 3,000 people in total. Although, as Danson says, “once you accept the fact that victims can watch an execution, at what point does the general public say, through the me-

dia, we have an interest in this, too? Where do you draw the line?”

For the moment, perhaps, that line is being drawn through the heart of Middle America—Terre Haute, Ind. Once a thriving river town with coal mines and heavy industry, Terre Haute is like any number of midsize Canadian cities that progress has passed by. To the east I lies the rail and trucking hub that is I Indianapolis, to the west, the self-

0 proclaimed Gateway to the West, St.

1 Louis. Terre Haute’s claim to fame: I the first mass production of the f long-playing record album, the invention of the Coke bottle and (less

apple pie-ish) the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Terre Haute is the kind of place where new products are taken to be tested, and as in any small community, people’s reactions to something as novel as the execution of a mass murderer in their backyard run the gamut. They may even reflect the new ambivalence Americans seem to have towards the death penalty. According to a national poll last week, 63 per cent are in favour, down from a high of 80 per cent in the mid-1990s. Also, in this newest poll, support for executions drops to 46 per cent when life without parole is offered as an alternative.

Trying to make their own peace with this tragedy, Terre Haute

churches of different denominations have come together to organize prayer services and vigils for both the Monday and Tuesday evenings preceding the execution. This is a churchgoing part of the world. A self-proclaimed Jesus freak purchased a billboard on the main highway to the penitentiary urging folks to pray for Timothy McVeigh. But in what is probably a better read of the town’s mood, the sign company put up two of its own billboards, urging people to pray for the 168 victims of the bombing.

Down at the Body Art tattoo parlour, co-owner Debbie Walker is making a small killing selling souvenir buttons and T-shirts. The one with the “Die! Die! Die!” logo, and a cruder version, are currently outselling the abolitionist variant by about 180 to 3. Walker offered to make a donation from each sale to the Oklahoma City memorial for the bombing victims, but was politely turned aside. Is she not concerned her neighbours might say she is profiting from a tragedy? “Are you kidding me?” she replies. “Who is not profiting from this? All the stores, the gas stations, the hotels? Don’t get on me just because we thought of something new. McVeigh, he don’t care. He’s ruined thousands of lives.”

A few blocks away, at the downtown campus of Indiana State University, political scientist Kirby Goidel and colleagues are or-

ganizing an intensive three-week course on the death penalty that will run right through the McVeigh execution. Students wanted it, so did some faculty. So far, about 20 students have signed up, which is not bad for an all-day summer course in May, says Goidel. If it helps some students deal with the strong emotions surrounding this issue, so much the better, he says. But he doesn’t hold much hope for the execution itself being cathartic: “It’s like knowing a car crash is going to happen. Is it really something you are going to feel good watching?” With public schools closed for the day, many families he knows are simply planning to pack up their kids and get out of town.

The problem for liberals in Terre Haute and probably throughout America is that McVeigh is almost a poster boy for the death penalty. Politely unrepentant, he was even willing to have his death telecast.

He doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world. An enigmatic killer, McVeigh is almost more scary because he is so ordinary. In a profile shortly after his arrest in 1995, The Washington Post observed:

“In deeply disturbing ways, he is a prototype of his generation.” He lived through the upheaval of parental divorce when he was a young boy, the crashing job market of the early 1980s while a young man, a briefly exhilarating period in the army during the war against Saddam Hussein, and then, like so many others of his age, found himself back home as an adult, sleeping in his old room, with nowhere to go.

Warden Lappin says McVeigh has been “a very manageable individual since he’s been here, and continues to be so.” He made

three fairly routine appeals of his conviction and then, in December, filed a motion that he would not seek another. Five weeks later, his execution date was set. In early April, his father and sister Jennifer came for their final visit. According to Bill McVeigh, his son refused to apologize to anyone for his crime and laughed off his family’s request for a hug. His last words are already the subject of intense speculation. They will be made while he is strapped to the death chair, the IV in his arm but before the chemicals will have been administered. Four separate groups of witnesses and a camera will be looking on from behind darkened windows.

It is said the devil is in the details, and for the execution of 3 Timothy McVeigh, not much has I been left to chance. His last three I days on earth have been planned I almost to the minute. The same ° holds true for the assembling media, which begin setting up on the prison site eight days before the event in accordance with a meticulously drawn schedule. Also for the demonstrators: government buses will begin picking them up at two Terre Haute riverside parks at precisely 12:01 on the morning of the 16th and will run back and forth all night until the deed is done. Silent prayer vigils are planned for 4:12 a.m., precisely 168 minutes before the formal execution is to commence.

For warden Lappin, a folksy if somewhat technocratic midwesterner, this is his first execution. But he has told local groups he has been “practising,” and that he has visited other states to watch how lethal injections are carried out. In a recent media briefing that went on for more than two hours, Lappin said that in his experience it usually takes between four and eight minutes for the chemicals to take effect. (Mind you, death penalty opponents have documented 32 cases of botched executions since 1982.) He said he expects to emerge “about 15 minutes” after the start time, which may not be exacdy at 7 o’clock, to relay what’s gone on. The imprecision was too much for some. An NBC producer who had been negotiating the media details on behalf of the networks reminded Lappin that they will all be on air live at that point—“ 15 minutes will be an eternity for us.” It was said in a room of 200 people, without the slightest irony.

Should Timothy McVeigh be executed?