McVEIGH case gives death penalty opponents a rallying cry

Saturday, May 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For years, there have been cases of documents lost, trials mishandled, convictions overturned, evidence mislaid, constitutional rights denied. Now the miscues of the criminal justice system have roared into full view with the mix-up of documents in the Timothy McVeigh case.

Death penalty opponents say such foul-ups are nothing new.

``It points out we have a system that is fraught with error,'' said Abe Bonowitz, director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. ``We have to say if this can happen where everybody is watching and the microscope is on the case, what's happening to the everyday schnook who just happens to be caught up in the system?''

McVeigh attorney Rob Nigh entered the debate Friday, saying he believed a moratorium on all federal executions was in order.

``This kind of thing unfortunately happens far too often in the criminal justice system,'' Nigh said. ``The events of the past three days demonstrate that, even in Mr. McVeigh's case, the government is not capable of carrying out the death penalty in a fair and just manner.''

Another McVeigh lawyer, Nathan Chambers, expressed surprise that after more than six years, the FBI recovered documents less than a week before the scheduled execution. ``It's astounding. It needs to be investigated,'' Chambers said. ``This is the FBI's most important investigation, maybe ever, and they hold themselves out as being the premier law enforcement agency in the world.''

McVeigh had been scheduled for execution Wednesday in Terre Haute, Ind. But late Thursday, FBI officials revealed they had failed to turn over thousands of documents to McVeigh's defense team.

In response, Attorney General John Ashcroft postponed the execution until June 11 and ordered an investigation into the FBI's failure to turn over the documents.

``It is now clear that the FBI failed to comply fully'' with an agreement to hand over all documents in the case, Ashcroft said. ``I want justice to be carried out fairly.''

He insisted, however, that the documents do not ``contradict'' the jury's verdict in the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people in a federal building.

President Bush defended the nation's justice system. ``I think by and large, the system is healthy,'' he said.

And Ashcroft said he ordered the delay ``to assure the American people that they have a right to have confidence in our processes.''

The matter may capture the attention of Congress. The counsel for Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the congressman may ask for hearings.

``This is a problem that we believe goes well beyond the McVeigh case,'' said Julian Epstein.

The committee chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the panel will hold hearings on ``the FBI's inability to comply with basic legal procedures.'' He said the hearings would follow the investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Death penalty opponents say too often mistakes are made in such cases. They have been joined in recent months by scores of officials calling for a moratorium.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission last month called for a worldwide moratorium on executions as a step toward ending capital punishment. Last year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan suspended executions in that state after finding that 13 Illinois death row prison inmates were wrongfully convicted.

``Human error may be OK in normal criminal trials but we can't risk human error when someone's life is on the line,'' said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch. ``How can we feel confident in the machinery of death when in a case like McVeigh's there are errors?''

Ajamu Baraka, who oversees anti-death penalty efforts for Amnesty International, said McVeigh's case was scrutinized by ``legal scholars, teams of lawyers, government officials . . . yet there was still a critical error.''

``It's time for the U.S. government to wake up and realize that this is a system that is flawed,'' Baraka said.