The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

By Franklin E. Zimring | Go to book overview

1
The Peculiar Present of American
Capital Punishment

THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT was about to make history in the spring of 2001, and it looked like a public relations bonanza for capital punishment. The pending execution of Timothy McVeigh seemed like an ideal case to launch a program of lethal injections as criminal punishment by the national government of the United States. The McVeigh case combined a terrible crime with a defiantly guilty defendant and none of the problems of discrimination and uncertainty that bedevil most executions. McVeigh had detonated the bomb that killed 168 occupants of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. The defendant had planned to kill hundreds of people he did not know to express his anger at the U.S. government's behavior two years before in Waco, Texas. He was adequately defended at trial by a team of competent lawyers, at a cost to government that exceeded 100 times what states such as Texas and Virginia pay for defense services in death cases. McVeigh had publicly acknowledged his guilt and moved up the date of his execution by abandoning legal appeals, thus providing a grateful federal government with a mass murderer of women and children for the first federal execution since 1963. Even better, this defendant was not retarded and was not a member of a disadvantaged minority.

By May 2001 there had been more than 700 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty back on American soil, but no other condemned criminal had presented credentials of this caliber for a feel-good execution, for a triumphant reaffirmation that government killing can be a good thing. There was unprecedented media attention not only

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