WASHINGTON — After earlier declaring he was ready to die, Timothy J. McVeigh decided Thursday to seek a postponement of his execution because, according to his lawyers, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber said he wants to "promote integrity in the criminal justice system."
McVeigh is scheduled to die in 10 days. His attorneys in Denver filed a lengthy appeal Thursday asking that the execution date be set aside because the FBI and federal prosecutors have only recently turned over to the defense thousands of pages of investigative files.
Racing the clock, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch, who sentenced McVeigh to death four years ago, ordered the government to respond to the defense request by Monday afternoon and warned the FBI not to go back and re-interview witnesses or encourage them not to cooperate with defense lawyers.
"There are a lot of accusations about that agency and the conduct of its people," Matsch said in his Denver courtroom. "I want to be confident this word gets out."
Matsch then announced that he will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on the request for a stay of execution--a sign he does not want to let McVeigh's uncertain fate tick down to the last hour.
The sudden move by McVeigh, who as far back as December began saying he wanted to drop all of his appeals and face execution, means that Matsch ultimately must decide whether to delay the June 11 execution and, possibly, order even more hearings into whether McVeigh received a fair trial.
It also signals that, even this close to his planned execution, McVeigh is still willing to gamble with his fate.
The 33-year-old mass murderer has said he would rather be executed than serve a term of life in prison without parole. But many legal experts say that, at most, that is precisely what he could get if his death sentence is reduced.
McVeigh also fancies himself a revolutionary willing to give his life as a martyr for his anti-government cause, and any reprieve in his case could seriously weaken that image. Moreover, McVeigh, who was initially scheduled to die May 16, would have become the first federal prisoner executed in nearly 40 years. A delay would mean that distinction could go to Juan Raul Garza, a convicted drug dealer now set to die June 19.
"This decision was not easy for Mr. McVeigh," said his attorney Rob Nigh, emerging from a two-hour meeting at the federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind. "He had prepared to die, and he was ready to die on May 16."
But Nigh said that, while McVeigh does not wish to further hurt the victims and families of the 168 people killed and 500 injured in the bombing, he decided "upon principle" to hold the Justice Department accountable for not sharing the files with the defense. It has become a major embarrassment for a federal government that McVeigh hates.
Indeed, the defense team announced Thursday that they are still receiving copies of FBI files, including one witness statement turned over Wednesday, despite assurances a week ago from Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that everything had been made available.
Defense lawyers refused to characterize the new document, citing a protective order sealing all of the material, although one defense attorney, Chris Tritico, said, "We believe it has merit on Mr. McVeigh's case."
A copy of a portion of that file, dated April 15, 1997, and obtained by The Times, is an FBI interview with J. D. Cash, a small-town Oklahoma newspaper reporter who long has pushed conspiracy theories in the bombing.
Cash told the FBI that in May 1995 "he received a tip . . . that Dennis Mahon was involved in the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City," according to the file.
Authorities have identified Mahon as a white supremacist from Oklahoma, and the government later decided it did not believe he had a role in the bombing.
Ashcroft, meanwhile, echoed his position that there is nothing new in the files to suggest McVeigh is innocent. He said his office "is prepared to oppose any attempts by Timothy McVeigh to overturn his conviction and sentence or to force a new trial."
The attorney general, in the statement released in Washington while he was traveling in Europe, also noted that McVeigh has confessed to the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building--the worst act of terrorism in America.
"Based on overwhelming evidence and McVeigh's own repeated admissions, we know that he is responsible for this crime," Ashcroft said, "and we will continue to pursue justice by seeking to carry out the sentence that was determined by a jury."
Tritico, speaking on the courthouse steps in Denver just after the defense filed the appeal, responded: "We'll address Gen. Ashcroft's comments when we get into a courtroom."
Matsch moved the trial to Denver after ruling that a fair jury could not be found in Oklahoma.