An Execution Backlash in an Unlikely Place


An improbable rumble is rising in this prairie city known for fundamentalist Christianity, staunchly conservative politics and the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history: opposition to the death penalty.

In recent months, Oklahomans have taken to the streets, bent their heads in prayer, stood vigil outside government offices. Scores of death penalty opponents have been arrested. Gatherings of this city's anti-death penalty coalition swelled from five steady members to 70.

"The truth is, the center of the anti-death movement is at the moment firmly located in Oklahoma City," said Robin Meyer, minister of the city's Mayflower Congregational Church. "This is where the action is. These events have brought it all to a head."

Early Monday, against this backdrop, Timothy J. McVeigh is scheduled to be put to death in the name of Oklahoma City. The lanky ex-soldier blasted the city's heart to dust in 1995 when his homemade bomb laid waste to a federal office building and killed 168 people.

Most people here believe McVeigh should be put to death for the crime--but not everybody. Some survivors and family members say they'd rather the unrepentant killer be locked away for life. Discord has replaced the single, citywide voice crying for McVeigh's head.

With retribution just around the corner, there's no clean answer here--not anymore.

"People are starting to realize it doesn't accomplish anything. They're changing their minds against the death penalty," says Patti Hall, a onetime Social Security worker who hasn't held a job since her lung was punctured and 40 bones broken in the blast.

"You start to think, death doesn't deserve one more death."

Mistakes Allegedly Made by Police Lab

Other, unrelated suspicions have nudged the city's consciousness and stirred doubts about the death penalty. A local police chemist whose testimony helped execute 11 men is now suspected of bungling or misrepresenting hair and fiber analysis in numerous cases.

This spring, accused rapist Jeffrey Pierce was freed after spending 15 years in prison on chemist Joyce Gilchrist's testimony. On Oklahoma's death row, 11 of the people awaiting execution were convicted with evidence from Gilchrist's laboratory.

Nobody thinks that McVeigh is the wrong man. But Gilchrist's reported misdeeds stand as a reminder of the profound risk of executions: Once a death sentence is carried out, there's no such thing as an appeal.

"The blind faith in the death penalty is being slowly chipped away and eroded; it's happening incrementally," said Randy Coyne, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who has written briefs in McVeigh's case. "We see innocent people going to prison. You think Pierce is the only one? He's not the only one."

There was a time, not so long ago, when Oklahomans didn't question the government's killing duty. This is a hanging state and always has been.

Even before Oklahoma was a state, suspected criminals were rounded up and sent before famed Judge Isaac Parker who, during the 1890s, sent 87 men to the gallows.

That has proved to be a long shadow: Until he resigned last month, Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. Bob Macy held on to his job for 21 years, in part by boasting of the string of undesirables he'd shipped off to death row.

Already this year, 13 have been executed in Oklahoma; two more are scheduled to get the needle by mid-July.

This was traditionally an Old Testament state populated by people like Hall, an unwavering Southern Baptist who'd never given much thought to capital punishment.

When newscasts droned on about condemned killers, Hall felt nothing. Surely they were guilty, simple as that.

"I just assumed they deserved it," she said.

And to be sure, the simmering resistance to capital punishment only goes so far. If the mayhem of the bombing stripped some victims of their blood lust, it endowed others with a newfound fury.

Jannie Coverdale, for one, never believed in the death penalty--until her two baby grandsons died under a rain of cement and glass.

"I think Tim [McVeigh] is just Satan; he's got to be," she said. "I want to know that he's dead and he can't hurt anybody else."

And maybe Oklahoma City isn't such an unlikely battleground for one of America's oldest philosophical debates, after all.

From a safe distance, the rest of the nation can holler for McVeigh's death, but this place can't get away from murder, not even if it tries.

After the 1995 bombing, Oklahoma City swallowed the sight of decapitation and mutilation, sat up nights to ponder the price of life and the distance between justice and vengeance.

"You never think about it," says Johnnie Carter, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, "until it hits you square in the face."

Most Choose Not to Witness Execution

Most of the bombing victims don't want to witness McVeigh's execution: About 1,100 people were eligible to gather in Oklahoma City at dawn to watch McVeigh die on closed-circuit television beamed from the death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind. Fewer than 300 asked to attend the viewing.

Some think lethal injection is too easy on McVeigh; some consider it a mercy killing. Let him rot in prison, they say. Paper his cell with photographs of the children he killed.

Others believe America has yet to ferret out the full story, a suspicion fed by the belated disclosure of FBI documents that led to a monthlong delay in McVeigh's execution. They're convinced McVeigh had help, fear his co-conspirators walk free and anonymous in our midst. Don't kill him until the truth comes out, they plead.

And then there are the survivors like Sara Sweet, who just can't stomach another death--not even McVeigh's.

For months after her father was pulled from the mountain of crumbled stone and wires, Sweet dreamed of revenge. She thought about pulling the trigger herself; imagined flicking some deadly switch. She was pretty sure she could do it, if she got the chance.

Two years later, in 1997, Sweet traveled to Denver to watch McVeigh stand trial. When she saw his father, a sorrowful factory worker from upstate New York, her rage passed off. Now a 28-year-old philosophy student, Sweet has turned against the death penalty.

"I wasn't angry anymore, I was just filled with this horrible sadness that this could happen in my country, in my state, to my father," she said.

"What a sad, horrible waste of everything."

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