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For McVeigh, a Penalty as Severe as His Crime

Timothy McVeigh should receive the ultimate penalty for committing the most infamous act of terrorist murder to ever take place on American soil.

His coldly premeditated crime, setting off a huge bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City, killed 168 men, women and children. McVeigh could get the death penalty either from a federal jury now deliberating his punishment or in an Oklahoma state trial yet to begin.

The 29-year-old former soldier is what some have called a “poster boy” for advocates of the death penalty: a mass murderer who is remorseless, yet sound of mind, the son of a supportive, middle-class family. His reported outrage over the Waco and Ruby Ridge episodes aside, there are no excuses, none, for his heinous act. McVeigh got a fair trial and received a vigorous legal representation from first-class lawyers who worked hard and long to defend the indefensible.

It can be reasonably argued that there is a social purpose in imposing the death penalty in this instance to bring closure and, yes, a measure of national retribution for a murderous act of unprecedented enormity. That said, why not round up every death row murderer in the nation and march them toward their final destination?

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Because almost everything about the McVeigh case is the exception, not the rule.

This nation, and Los Angeles particularly, knows firsthand what happens when a murder defendant has good lawyers and the big money to pay them. Odds are, no conviction. Most people on death row are poor and/or minorities. Most were represented by public defenders or lawyers appointed by the court; in this group, competence and devotion to defending client rights can vary wildly. Alabama, for example, pays lawyers a maximum of $2,000 for trial preparation in capital cases. Experts estimate it takes at least 500 hours to properly prepare a capital defense; in Alabama that would amount to a fee of $4 an hour, far less than the nation’s legal minimum wage. As a result, horror stories of misrepresentation and incompetence abound: lawyers who never bothered visiting the crime scene, never read their state’s death penalty statute, never interviewed witnesses, spoke only once to their client.

Any defendant so represented, even if innocent, stands little chance of escaping conviction, and possibly a death sentence. Texas, a state with a sorry history of wrongful convictions, seems bent on sending a record number of convicts to their deaths, including the mentally impaired.

For these reasons and others, The Times continues to have serious concerns about the application of the death penalty. But none of those concerns are raised by the McVeigh case.

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McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran with a burning grudge against federal authority, enjoyed the freedoms of America and then snatched the very lives of 168 Americans and tossed them away like so much garbage.

Might his death create a martyr for the militia movement? Certainly that’s a possibility, which is why some in law enforcement hope that the federal jury comes back with a life-without-parole decision, leaving the death penalty decision to the Oklahoma state trial. Federally obsessed militias are less likely to focus their venom at state government, the theory goes. In any case, McVeigh will be a symbol to some militia members, be he dead or in prison.

The Oklahoma City bombing, in its horrific nature and impact, was a crime against the people of the United States. Let us hope that it will remain an act of abomination unique in the nation’s history. The punishment in this case should be as severe as the law allows, and that means death.


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