‘He died with his eyes open’: Covering the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh
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.”
Smith, and the other reporters, said as he had turned his head to look at those in the media room, McVeigh sought to gaze briefly at each of them individually.
Smith added: “He seemed almost to be trying to take charge of the room and understand his circumstances, nodding at each one of us individually, then a sort of cursory glance toward the government section. He lay there very still. He never said a word. His lips were very tight. He nodded his head a few times. He blinked a few times.”
Susan Carlson, a reporter with WLS Radio in Chicago, was among those to point out McVeigh had died with his eyes open.
“As he laid back in position and they started administering all the drugs, his breathing became a little more shallow,” she said. “At one point, he filled up his cheeks with air and then just kind of let it go. But I don't believe that was his last breath. There was still some shallow breathing that followed.”
Larry Whicher, whose brother Alan, an agent with the US Secret Service who had been killed in the 1995 bombing, had witnessed the execution and told CNN McVeigh had “a totally expressionless, blank stare”.
He added: “He had a look of defiance, and that if he could, he'd do it all over again.”
McVeigh had not made any final words, no apology to the families of those who died. Indeed, before his execution, the disillusioned young man had expressed regret he had not killed more people.
In place of a final statement, he had spent his final hours copying out the last lines of a verse of Invictus by the British Victorian poet Ernest Henley, that concludes: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
The prison said McVeigh’s final meal had been been two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Much has changed in the 20 years since McVeigh’s execution.
Following the the attacks of 9/11, which happened a few months later, the FBI and much of the intelligence establishment shifted its focus away from anti-government domestic terrorism, to foreign and domestic Islamist threats.
With hindsight, it was not the best decision; figures show that over the past two decades, white supremacist and anti-government groups have killed more people and planned more attacks than any other group.
Some of the flurry of organisations that have have made headlines recently, in rallies across the country, were involved in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. Donald Trump had played down this threat, but in June Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators the greatest domestic threat was posed by “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”
“Specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” said Garland.
Support for the death penalty has shifted as well. In 2001, the figure stood at 66 per cent in favour, something of a drop from 80 per cent, which had been the figure in 1994. (In the case of McVeigh, a Gallup poll found 75 per cent supported him being executed, among them 25 per cent normally opposed to the death penalty.)
Today, the figure stands at around 60 per cent, and the coalition of those opposed to the death penalty has grown. Perhaps, most noticeably, business leaders such as Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, have rallied to call for its abolition.
The Independent has added its voice to that campaign, calling for a halt to the use of the death penalty, both in the United States and around the world.
“I think to be a truly civilised country, you must realise that killing people as a way of trying to teach people not to kill people is not the way to do it,” Branson said in an interview last week.
Shortly after McVeigh was pronounced dead, President George W Bush would issue a statement from the White House saying that “this morning, the United States of America carried out the severest sentence for the gravest of crimes”.
He added: “The victims of the Oklahoma City bombing have been given not vengeance, but justice. And one young man met the fate he chose for himself six years ago.”
Not everyone in Terre Haute agreed.
Among them was was one of McVeigh’s lawyers, Robert Nigh, who said he thought the execution would actually help those calling for an end to the death penalty.
“We killed Bill and Mickey McVeigh's son this morning,” he said.
“If there is anything good that can come from the execution of Tim McVeigh, it may be to help us realise sooner that we simply cannot do this anymore. I am firmly convinced that it is not a question of if we will stop; it is simply a question of when.”
Before leaving the prison grounds, I stopped to speak to one of the anti death penalty protesters, Harold Smith, from Albany, New York.
Smith had occupied the same spot outside the maximum security prison for three days. I would later learn he was a former postal worker who had driven 15 hours to be there, passing through McVeigh’s hometown, Pendleton, in what had been a failed attempt to meet the condemned man’s father.
What did he make of what had just happened, I asked. He said: “It makes a mockery of the words ‘civilised nation’.”
The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.