‘He died with his eyes open’: Covering the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh


14 Oct
14Oct

Timothy McVeigh was found guilty of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and sentenced to death (AFP via Getty Images)

The authorities had been preparing for thousands of protesters, both for and against the death penalty. As it was, just a couple of hundred showed up.Those that did were far outnumbered by the media. 

Up to 1,400 reporters had gathered on the thick grass outside of Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary to cover the execution of Timothy McVeigh, both America’s deadliest domestic terrorist with white supremacist sympathies, and also an ordinary-looking veteran of the Gulf War, and a Roman Catholic born in upstate New York.

In April 1995, with help of accomplice of Terry Nichols, a friend from army training, the disillusioned McVeigh had driven a truck bomb beneath the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and lit a two-minute fuse before fleeing the scene in a second vehicle he had parked nearby.

The truck, a 1993 Ford F-700 rental vehicle, contained 4,800lbs of explosives and it destroyed almost all the nine-storey property, killing 168 people, including 19 children.And so on this hot June morning in 2001, the authorities were preparing to put to death the 33-year-old, who had felt inspired to attack with such force a symbol of the government he had come to distrust and despise. 

The execution was set for 7am Central Time, and McVeigh would soon be strapped to a gurney, in what would be the federal government’s first use of capital punishment since 1963.The entire process was disquieting.One’s sympathies rushed to so many caught up in the affair, not least the victims and relatives from Oklahoma, 264 of whom had gathered to watch a live-feed of the execution taking place in Indiana.

Who knows what mix of emotions surged through their hearts that day, what thoughts occupied their minds as they sat and waited. In the eyes of many, McVeigh was a monster, and some of them hoped for satisfaction or some sort of emotional closure in seeing him die.But one wondered whether McVeigh, powerless, his hair shorn to no more than a buzz and strapped down horizontal, lived up to that expectation.Personally, it might in theory, have been far worse. 

A day or two earlier, I had sought to add my name to the list of media witnesses, 10 of who whom would be drawn or selected to watch the execution carried out, somehow believing it was my journalistic duty.I had felt queasy about doing so, and 20 years later I hope I would not be so foolish. I was delighted, therefore, when the prison authorities said that only US citizens were eligible.The execution was scheduled to start at 7am, and would involve three drugs being injected in succession into McVeigh’s body via an IV placed in his right leg – sodium thiopental to sedate him, pancuronium bromide to prevent him breathing, and potassium chloride to stop his heart.

There were just two people in the room with him, prison warden Harley Lappin and US Marshal Frank Anderson. Right on schedule, the warden asked the officer if the execution could proceed, and a final call was made to the Department of Justice in Washington DC to see if there was a reason to halt it. There was not.“Warden, we may proceed with the execution,” said the officer, placing down a bright red phone he he had used to make the call.

An Associated Press reporter, who was among the witnesses, would reveal that soon afterwards, one of the IV lines extending through the wall could be seen to move as the first chemical began to flow. 

McVeigh swallow hard, his eyes moved slightly. His chest moved up and down.At 7.14am McVeigh was declared dead.When he came out to speak to us, the warden’s face looked drawn.“The court order to execute Timothy McVeigh has been fulfilled,” he said. “Pursuant to the sentence of the US district court, Timothy James McVeigh has been executed by lethal injection.

”There had been 10 reporters in the room adjacent to the execution chamber, and they came out to share what they had been.One of them was Shephard Smith, then with Fox News, but now an anchor with CNBC. (One wonders, 20 years on, how Smith might feel about being a witness.)“We were standing at a glass window about 18 inches from his feet. He was wearing sneakers, you could see that. There were sheets up to here, and folded over.

 His hands were down. He looked straight at the ceiling,” he told us.“When the curtains opened, to his left were his representatives. He sat up as much as he could in that chair and looked toward his window and nodded his head like that.”

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