MCVEIGH finds chink in government's armor, sees reason to live

Sunday, June 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) _ Preparing for his execution at the hands of the government he despises, Timothy McVeigh gave fellow death row inmates everything he owned, arranged for his body to be turned over to family members and readied himself for what some saw as martyrdom.

He sat in his stuffy 8-by-10-foot cell and waited.

Then he learned of an FBI error, saw a chink in the government's armor. Now instead of waiting to die, the man convicted of killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing has found a reason to live.

``I would say he has some new resolve,'' said attorney Robert Nigh, who described his client's demeanor after a meeting in the federal prison here Thursday.

McVeigh's attorneys have filed court papers in Denver and now await a Wednesday hearing to argue for a stay of McVeigh's June 11 execution. They say they need more time to review thousands of documents the FBI failed to turn over during McVeigh's 1997 trial, and they hope to show that the government's mistake could mean a new trial.

The decision stands in stark contrast to McVeigh's previous stance.

In December, he asked that all appeals be dropped and his death be scheduled quickly. Among the possessions he handed over to fellow inmates was his fan, prized in death row cells without air conditioning.

As early as Thursday morning, when he met with Nigh and attorney Richard Burr at the U.S. Penitentiary, he had yet to decide whether to seek a stay or move forward with the execution.

``He had prepared himself psychologically and emotionally,'' Nigh said. ``He had prepared himself to die.''

According to an online journal by fellow death row inmate David Hammer, McVeigh had been in a ``soldier'' mode while getting ready for his lethal injection, even keeping his bed made up military style. Hammer, who is friends with McVeigh, wrote that the 6-foot-2 Gulf War veteran had slimmed down to 157 pounds, giving his face a drawn look.

``All of this is by design, planned to the most minute detail,'' Hammer wrote. ``All for impression and purpose.''

According to the journal, McVeigh gave Hammer a photograph of himself and inscribed it with the words: ``My head has been bloodied, but it remains unbowed.''

Robert Jay Lifton, co-author of the book ``Who Owns Death?,'' an examination of the psychology of capital punishment, said he believes McVeigh is torn between making a martyr of himself and exposing the government's mistakes.

``With McVeigh, there's always been a conflict between his own impulses, particularly toward martyrdom, and what you could call the legal interests of his case,'' Lifton said. ``Now the impulse toward martyrdom has become mixed in with a desire to live and a desire to embarrass the government.''

Burr said his client simply wants to expose problems in the criminal justice system.

``That right now is paramount to him,'' Burr said. ``It caused him to put principle over personal concerns.''

But McVeigh's personal concerns have never been clear. Hammer writes that McVeigh once told him that the theme song to a 1970 World War II movie, ``Kelly's Heroes,'' accurately portrays his own actions in life.

The song, called ``Burning Bridges,'' contains the following lyrics:

``Years have passed and I keep thinking what a fool I've been/I look back into the past and think of way back then/I know that I lost everything I thought that I could win/I guess I should have listened to my friends.''

It's now clear that McVeigh still believes he can win something. His newfound resilience can be found in one simple act: He just bought a fan from the prison commissary.