End the Death Penalty

That Timothy McVeigh was a despicable human being, a deluded, self-indulgent coward, a traitor and a murderer is beyond dispute. 

That he deserved to die is beyond dispute. 

That he should not have been put to death, because the death penalty itself is a barbaric punishment not worthy of a civilized society is also beyond dispute. 

Despite what some death penalty advocates claimed before and after McVeigh’s June 11th execution by the federal government, his death does not diminish the growing movement to end the death penalty. It underscores why the death penalty should be abolished.

There’s no question that McVeigh appeared the “easy” case for the death penalty: a mass murderer, who, repugnantly, described the men, women and children he killed as “collateral damage.” (Nor is there any question that Juan Garza, the convicted drug trafficker and murderer slated to be executed June 19, is also not fit to ever again be free.)

In his last days McVeigh claimed to be “sorry” that all those people had to die in order for him to make his point. But of course he was not sorry at all.

He wanted them to die. He blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in the daytime, not in the middle of the night. He blew it up when it was occupied: when workers were arriving at their desks, coffee cups and donuts in hand; when the building’s daycare center was bustling with tots parents had just kissed goodbye to moments before. Mass murder was the point of his dastardly crime—the linchpin of his crackpot view of himself as a “warrior” waging war against the United States Government.

No, Timothy McVeigh did not deserve to live. But American society does not deserve the stain of his death.

The death penalty is inherently unjust, inherently unfairly applied.

For what reason was Timothy McVeigh executed? For killing 168 people?

Then why isn’t Thomas E. Blanton facing execution, too? Blanton, 62, was convicted last month of one of the most heinous racial crimes of the Civil Rights years: the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four adolescent girls were killed. Blanton and his Ku Klux Klan partners deliberately sought to kill as many children as possible. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Where were the death-penalty advocates in that case? Do they feel the lives of those four girls are not “worth” the execution of those who murdered them?

Or, is it just a matter of numbers: the mass murderer of 168 deserves the death penalty, but the murderer of 4 does not?

This comparative question looms over every case involving murder—including that of the alleged spy, ex-F.B.I. agent Robert P. Hanssen—in every jurisdiction in which the death penalty is on the books.

What also looms is the great irony that McVeigh, having had the opportunity to say his last goodbyes, went to his death swiftly and painlessly—”a quiet end,” as a June 12th New York Times story put it, “for the man who sent 168 people to their deaths in screams, flames and crushing concrete.”

In a powerful editorial the day McVeigh was executed, the Washington Post declared that even in the McVeigh and Garza cases, “where the logic of capital punishment is at its strongest, the flaws and dangers of the penalty shine through.”

Recalling the withholding of documents by the F.B.I. from McVeigh’s attorneys that forced the execution’s postponement, the Post asked, “If such a thing could happen in this case, can anyone really contend that such violations are not commonplace in those cases nobody follows carefully?”

No, indeed, the accumulating evidence of recent years tells us that mistakes—and institutional and individual racial and ethnic biases—have put some murderers on death row, while other murderers have been spared the death penalty. And we know that some on death row clearly did not receive a fair trial—and that others were innocent of the crime altogether.

All of these factors led the Post to remind us that the late constitutional scholar, Charles L. Black, Jr., was right in pointing to “the inevitability of caprice and mistake” in administering the death penalty.

That is why popular support for the death penalty is at a twenty-year low. That is why fourteen states have now banned the execution of the mentally retarded—including Texas this month. The Texas legislature also enacted broad changes in its criminal justice system in response to growing criticism of the quality of legal assistance available to defendants who are people of color and who are poor.

In the year since Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty—after more than a dozen men on the state’s death row were found through DNA testing to be innocent—bills seeking death-penalty moratoria have been filed in 21 of the 38 death-penalty states.

All these, and other, developments, are in fact pointing to one conclusion: The death penalty must be abolished, for all our sakes.

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