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Horror and Humanity

June 9, 1997



Humanizing a convicted mass killer is the formidable task of defense lawyers pleading against the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. Whatever the jury decides, his trial has already brought forth humanity in others. As America ponders how one of its own could commit such terrorism, it can take inspiration from the judge, the Oklahoma City survivors, and members of the public cited in the press.

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Judge Richard Matsch set a humane tone by reminding jurors that their sentencing decision must be based not on passion but on reason. "We're not here to seek revenge on Timothy McVeigh," he said.

Many individuals maimed or bereaved by the bombing poured out their grief and anger to reporters in demands for swift execution. But some came through their pain to different conclusions. A father whose daughter was killed said, "I don't need another death." Another survivor saw a life sentence without parole as the toughest punishment for a young man living with such a burden of guilt.

But punishment other than death also offers time for atonement. It allows for correcting injustice if later evidence proves a verdict wrong. And prison rather than execution speaks to simple certainties like these expressed among the 60 percent in a Boston Globe survey who said they would vote against executing McVeigh:

"As my children say, 'Two wrongs do not make a right,' and no one should be put to death."

"The whole purpose of civilization is to rise above killing people."

Even some survivors favoring the death penalty took a larger view.

"We've never had any anger," said a man whose two small children were severely injured. "Our system will show that there will be accountability. The justice system works."

"If anything," said a woman whose husband was killed, "[McVeigh] brought us closer, people of all races. Our petty differences were blown away by this."

Thus did the Oklahoma City terrorist ultimately fail in the barbaric attempt to create chaos. Along with unspeakable suffering came the heroism and humanity of the family of man.