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A Question Of Sanity
June 9, 2001
by Maren L. Hickton

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 people and injured hundreds of others on April 19, 1995, will die Monday by lethal injection following a foray of confusion and appeals concerning the failure of the FBI to turn over several thousand pages of trial documents. The one-time Gulf War hero instructed his lawyers not to pursue an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court after Denver's appeals court refused to delay his execution for a second time.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called Denver court's ruling "a ruling in favor of justice."

McVeigh will be the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. While most cases do not receive this level of attention, juries are confronted everyday all over this nation with making the decision between life and death. Their options are limited by our justice system, where in many cases while their conscience tells them we do not have the right to play God with someone's life - no matter how heinous the crime - and they choose the death penalty as the only recourse to protect society from the convicted, where if they do not, they fear that this person may be released back to society through parole or other means, a real possibility.

If there was ever a time to give pause and think about the death penalty in the United States, this case is fraught with reason. The civil discord and discussions arising out of this case including the missing documents, the varied psychological assessments of the convicted, the government's need to let people know that the U.S. will not tolerate terrorism, plus the weight of outcry from so many victims - actual and otherwise, have presented a unique set of circumstances. These circumstances, however, must always be balanced against the right of the accused, the convicted.

Mr. McVeigh was a glaringly very troubled man despite his appearance of normalcy. How could anyone conclude that a man that admitted repeated psychotic anger towards the government, that built a bomb, that rented a truck and set about to destroy a Federal Building, killing and injuring hundreds of people could possibly be "sane" - that is, someone of a rational mind? Is our definition of sanity so limited, that we assess sanity on the basis of just whether one is able to communicate coherently?

If we conclude that McVeigh's actions were not rational, do we allow him to call further shots in determining the course and direction of his trial, including his desire to die, with his view that his death will just be a "state-assisted suicide?" Or do we direct the course of his trial, providing him with the means for a vigorous defense, recognizing that he is sick and unfit to participate, including stopping his denial of stays, appeals, etc.?

While we must let people know that we will not tolerate mass destruction and the taking of lives, do we punish those more harshly when their acts receive a greater amount of media attention and a building collapses? Do we punish sick felons for saying callous words like "collateral damage," referring to the lost live of children, or do we realize that these scripted words are coming out of the mouth of someone who was perhaps severely damaged himself by participating in a war that he was not mentally fit to serve?

Do we turn into a violent mob, fantasizing of our own ways to exact revenge, quoting scripture: "an eye for an eye," when we are certain we are taking God's word out of context? Some think that "lethal injection is not enough," yet we all know that whatever we do we cannot bring back so many lives that were taken by McVeigh without an ounce of remorse - further evidence that he has a part missing.

Does the government, irrespective of their own problems within their agencies, have the right to make an example out of anyone, when documents admittedly were not supplied that could have affected the outcome of this trial? Whether the convicted wants a new trial or not, doesn't the government have a duty to stay the execution, if not only for the sake of Mr. Nichols' appeal and other parties whose names have been released, but for the victims families, so that all have a full understanding of exactly what occurred on that fateful day in April in 1995? Are we to believe that of a sociopath (at minimum), who contends that he acted alone, just because he says so?

Forensic science, from behavioral (neuro-psych testing) to physical evidence (DNA, MRI, PET etc.) has come very far in uncovering both the aberrations and causes for the behaviors of many severely disturbed individuals. Do we dismiss this research as junk science and rely on archaic methodologies in formulating conclusions to carry out death sentences? Further, do civilized societies even have a right to put people to death, or do we restrain our own primal instincts of rage and fear instead of carrying out what amounts to collective acts of revenge?

The United States government and our judicial system has arguably acted within the current perimeters of our justice system in Mr. McVeigh's case with great consideration to the many victims of this terrible crime and all of these questions are certainly not unique. But when we are convicting mentally retarded and mentally ill people on a regular basis, we have children in our jails, and insanity pleas are routinely dismissed as a "cop out," we must begin to not only recognize that something is wrong with how these cases are being morally adjudicated, but understand that all of these people are members of our society - products of our society.

It is about time that we educate the public about the vagaries of mental illness and expand our own thinking to find alternative ways to deal with these kinds of cases, particularly sentencing issues. In the year 2001, spectacles of live-feed executions or simply putting sick, damaged people away, without any kind of understanding how they ended up that way in the first place and forgetting about them, is not only inhumane, it's revolting.

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