May 25, 2001

Ashcroft announces delay of Timothy McVeigh execution

In a press conference on May 11, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he would delay the execution of Timothy McVeigh, who has been sentenced to death for his participation in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This decision, which came six days before the set date for McVeigh's execution, came after new evidence emerged that the F.B.I had allegedly withheld from the initial trial.

“I have made a decision to postpone the execution of Timothy McVeigh for one month from this day, so that the execution would occur on June the 11th, 2001, in an effort to allow his attorneys ample and adequate time to review these documents and to take any action they might deem appropriate in that interval," said Ashcroft, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School.

In June 1997, a federal district court jury convicted and sentenced Timothy McVeigh to death for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. McVeigh admitted to leading a terrorist attack that killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured hundreds. The convictions were affirmed on direct appeal, and the United States Supreme Court discarded McVeigh's post-conviction challenges.

According to Ashcroft the case was complicated because most criminal cases do not require that F.B.I. documents be given to defense counsel during the discovery process prior to the capital hearing. In the McVeigh case, however, the government agreed to request more documentation than that normally required between prosecution and defense teams.

“While the F.B.I. provided volumes of documents in this case, it is now clear that the F.B.I. failed to comply fully with that discovery agreement that was reached in 1996," Ashcroft said.

According to Law School Professor Albert Alschuler, Ashcroft was not obligated to take these steps as attorney general. “The fact that the F.B.I. violated an agreement to give up all information does not entitle McVeigh to a new trial," Alschuler said. “But if his lawyers can find some kind of exculpatory material, he could face a retrial."

“It is my responsibility to promote the sanctity of the rule of law and justice. It is my responsibility and duty to protect the integrity of our system of justice," Ashcroft said. “I believe the attorney general has a more important duty than the prosecution of any single case, as painful as that may be to our nation."

Joey Mogul, civil rights and criminal defense attorney with the People's Law Office who spoke at a University teach-in against the death penalty on May 21, believes that Ashcroft made a wise decision to delay execution until all evidence was considered.

“In death penalty cases, the stakes are high, and there is an attitude of ‘win at all costs.' This attitude frequently leads to important evidence and in some cases, exculpatory information, not being turned over to the defense before trial," Mogul said.

Mogel said that in such high-profile death penalty cases, federal agencies like the F.B.I. often fail to turn over information that could be valuable to the case. “If the F.B.I. fails to turn over relevant documents in the most highly publicized case, a case where everyone is watching, I think it is fair to question whether similar materials are not being turned over in capital and other criminal cases which are less well known and less publicized," Mogel said.

Lucinda Scharbach, a third-year in the College and a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, agrees with Mogel. “It's one more example of a high profile case with a great deal of pressure on law enforcement to get a capital conviction at any cost, being grossly mishandled," Scharbach said.

The finality of the court's decision in death penalty cases has recently received criticism from the national media because the documents withheld by the F.B.I. came to light just six days prior to the scheduled execution, and might just have easily come to light six days after the execution.

Defense attorneys are currently studying the evidence that recently emerged from the F.B.I.. If they conclude that it contains any exculpatory characteristics, they have the right to appeal for retrial.

Ashcroft and members of the prosecution believe that a retrial is unlikely. “There is no doubt in my mind, or in the minds of any individual, about the guilt of Timothy McVeigh. He has repeatedly asserted his own responsibility for these acts with a kind of detailed account which removes any doubt," Ashcroft said.

If the defense attorneys do not appeal for a retrial, McVeigh will be executed on June 11, 2001.