by Bill Johnson
American Reporter Senior Correspondent
Oklahoma City, Okla.
May 11, 2001
OKLAHOMA CITY, May 11, 2001 -- Timothy McVeigh, who had rejected any further appeals of his death penalty for the federal building bombing, was given a 30-day stay of execution Thursday after the FBI revealed it had withheld some evidence at his trial.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told a Washington news conference that McVeigh had admitted his guilt and that it seemed clear the withheld papers would have no bearing on his conviction. But to make sure there is "a justice system that has the full faith and confidence of the American people," Ashcroft said he was delaying McVeigh's scheduled execution from next Wednesday until June 11.
That would give defense attorneys "time to review the documents and make any decisions" they might make, he said.
Ashcroft also said he had directed the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice to make a "careful study" into why the documents had not been provided to McVeigh's defense. Ashcroft did not use the word "investigation" in connection with the "study."
President Bush said at a later news conference he thought "the attorney made the right decision" in postponing the execution. Bush said it was necessary when a person's life was at stake to make sure everything was carried out properly and legally.
The FBI revealed Thursday that numerous documents that should have been provided to McVeigh's lawyers prior to his trial in Denver's U.S. District Court were, in fact, not handed over. The error was found when papers dealing with the April 19, 1995, bombing were being collected in Oklahoma City for archiving.
Letters reporting the withheld evidence were sent by the FBI to U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who provided over McVeigh's trial in Denver, and to McVeigh's attorneys.
Ashcroft said the "documents do not contradict" McVeigh's statements of guilt or the verdict of the jury. The April 19, 1995, bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. As Ashcroft pointed out, it was the worst terrorist attack ever in the United States.
But, Ashcroft said, the government had gone much further than normal in agreeing with the defense that every document generated by the government would be turned over to McVeigh's attorneys before the trial. It is clear, Ashcroft said, "the FBI failed to comply fully" with this agreement.
McVeigh, 33, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 a.m. May 16 at the federal prison facility in Terre Haute, Ind. McVeigh in December dropped any further appeals of his death sentence, declined to seek executive clemency and said he was prepared to die for his cause.
A decorated soldier in the Gulf War, McVeigh later turned againsy his government and said it could not be trusted. There was early speculation that McVeigh would latch on to the FBI's failure to bolster his claim and might change his mind about an appeal.
Some sources wondered whether McVeigh's attorneys might seek a new trial. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who presided over McVeigh'strial, said there were no pleadings of any sort dealing with McVeigh before him at this time. He said there was nothing he could or would do until or unless such papers were filed.
But Stephen Jones, McVeigh's trial attorney, said McVeigh may have closed some options by talking so openly with two reporters who wrote a book about the bombing and by refusing to continue the appeals process.
Jones also said he believed Ashcroft's actions were proper and correct.
There has not been a federal execution since 1963.
The FBI indicated the papers that had been found consisted of 302 forms filled out by agents after interviewing people. Prosecutor Sean Connelly said later the information consisted of "FBI reports of investigations ... and physical evidence, such as photographs, written correspondence and tapes."
An FBI archivist discovered the more than 3,100 withheld pages collected from 40 FBI offices throughout the country. The FBI office here was accumulating the papers for archiving. It was believed they also were being gathered for possible use in the state murder trial of Terry Nichols, McVeigh's convicted bombing conspirator.
"We do not believe anything in the materials makes even a prima facie showing of either man's actual innocence," Connelly wrote. Connelly said much of the material covered reported sightings of John Doe 1 and John Doe 3.
The Justice Department shortly after the bombing released sketches of two men, identified as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, who were wanted for the bombing. Agents later decided McVeigh was John Doe 1 and that therewas no John Doe 2.
McVeigh was arrested some 70 minutes after the bombing about 70 miles north of Oklahoma City when he was stopped by a state trooper because he had no license tag on his car. He was jailed in Perry after the trooper saw a pistol inside McVeigh's jacket and apparently was within hours of being released when the FBI identified him as one of the wantedmen.
Nichols was convicted by another Denver federal court jury ofinvoluntary manslaughter and conspiracy charges. He was sentenced to lifein prison.
Under federal law, McVeigh and Nichols could be tried only for the deaths of the eight on-duty federal agents who died in the building's rubble.
The Oklahoma County district attorney's office has filed 160 first-degree murder charges against Nichols and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for later this year.