Death Penalty Opponents' Worst Nightmare

Tim McVeigh is threatening to change people's changing minds about capital punishment.

Timothy McVeigh is unlike most death-row prisoners. For one, the Oklahoma City bomber is a federal prisoner, whereas the vast majority of men and women sentenced to die are sitting in state prisons. The time that has elapsed between McVeigh's sentencing and his execution also makes him unusual: due to his refusal to mount appeals, and despite a minor reprieve granted by the FBI when they mishandled files from their investigation, McVeigh will get his lethal injection just four years after he was sentenced.



What sets McVeigh most apart, however, is how little controversy his high-profile execution has generated so far. "He's the guy everyone wants to kill," says John Whitehead of the right-wing Rutherford Institute. In a time when popular support for the death penalty is falling, even among its core supporters in evangelical Christian churches, McVeigh's sentence seems to many to be perfectly suited. Some evangelical pastors who regularly inveigh against against capital punishment from the pulpit have not dared mention the McVeigh case.

Most conversations about the morality of putting McVeigh to death begin and end with the extremity of his crime. "With cases like this," says Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and pastoral heir, "I believe the Bible is very clear in how we are to deal with those who take life in the case of murder. What McVeigh did not only took 168 lives, it spilled the very blood of the country's future."

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McVeigh, Graham adds, has declined to ask forgiveness. "God would forgive him if he would confess it to God and repent for what he has done. But there hasn't been any indication of any regret, any sorrow."

McVeigh's few public statements, in fact, have only pushed public opinion toward capital punishment--in a recent "60 Minutes" interview, he called the children killed in the Oklahoma City blast "collateral damage." Talk like that makes believers out of fence-sitters.

For those who say the death penalty needs no further justification than the the Fifth Commandment, the McVeigh case has been a validation. "The death penalty is both biblically acceptable, and in the hearts of most Americans, politically acceptable," says Jerry Falwell, former head of the Moral Majority.

Jesus' experience on the cross, Falwell says, is evidence that He had nothing against capital punishment. "He didn't use any time on the cross to decry what was happening to the people beside him," says Falwell. "He made not one pejorative statement about the wrongness or rightness of capital punishment."

Thomas Berg, a Samford University law professor in Birmingham, Ala., says it will take an outrageous example of injustice to redirect the country's broad support for the death penalty, the way the Birmingham church bombing revolutionized the civil-rights landscape. So far, McVeigh seems to be heavy ballast for the current course.

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