WASHINGTON — Timothy McVeigh’s countdown to execution was suddenly interrupted Friday, five days before he was to die, as Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered an investigation into the FBI’s bungling of records in the Oklahoma City bombing.
President Bush said he was sure of McVeigh’s guilt but did not want the government “rushing his fate.”
McVeigh, on death row in Terre Haute, Ind., is now scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 11.
Attorney Rob Nigh described his client as frustrated and possibly reconsidering his earlier decision against challenging the execution order.
“He’s distressed about this in that he knows the impact that it has upon his family and those who care about him,” Nigh said outside the federal prison where he consulted with McVeigh.
Some victims said they were sickened, others resigned, after the dramatic turn of events in what is to be the first federal execution since 1963.
“It’s like a big old clamp squeezing my gut,” said Dan McKinney, whose wife was among the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing to which McVeigh has confessed. “We have to wait 30 more days for something we have waited six years.”
McVeigh’s defense team was handed 3,135 documents that the FBI should have provided more than three years ago during trial.
Retired FBI agent Danny Coulson, who worked on the case, told The Associated Press that all of the documents involved were generated from interviews on the day of the explosion and the day after – when field offices were chasing leads all over the world about a possible “John Doe No. 2” suspect.
McVeigh lawyer Nathan Chambers said he was informed by the U.S. attorney of the documents’ existence on Tuesday. Bush and Ashcroft both said they were not told of the problem until Thursday.
Complaining that 30 days was not enough time to study the mountain of paper, Nigh said McVeigh was now “keeping all of his options open.”
“He has indicated in the past that he did not want to delay. He’s willing to take a fresh look and evaluate the information,” Nigh said.
Separately, Michael Tigar, lawyer for convicted conspirator Terry Nichols, who is serving a life sentence, told CNN he would file a new appeal for Nichols with the Supreme Court.
Ashcroft, his back to the ticking mantle clock in a Justice Department conference room, said government attorneys studied the newly disclosed documents and concluded they did not contradict the 11 guilty verdicts returned against McVeigh for murder, conspiracy and using a weapon of mass destruction.
The attorney general, who decided last month to telecast McVeigh’s execution for victims, said he was now postponing the date “in order to assure the American people that they have a right to have confidence in our processes.”
“If any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice,” Ashcroft said.
McVeigh attorney Chambers called Ashcroft’s decision a public-relations attempt to restore public trust in the federal justice system.
“Regardless of the content of materials recently released, the most recent episode demonstrates in dramatic fashion why trust and confidence should be reserved,” said Chambers.
McVeigh has said he bombed the Oklahoma City federal building to avenge the deadly FBI standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
Bush, in a White House news conference, dismissed the notion that McVeigh might take the FBI foul-up in his case as justification for his anti-government rage.
“He should say he’s lucky to be in America; that’s what he ought to say,” Bush said. “This is a country that will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed as opposed to rushing his fate.”
In Pendleton, N.Y., Bill McVeigh watched Ashcroft’s announcement with a local television crew and confessed mixed emotions, saying he had been bracing all week for his son’s execution on Wednesday.
“Now this,” Bill McVeigh said. “It’s like starting over.”
FBI special agent Danny Defenbaugh, who led the Oklahoma City investigation, said that 28,000 interviews were conducted, and 23,290 pieces of evidence and 238,000 photos gathered over the course of the inquiry. Defenbaugh said the problem came to light when the documents — drawn from 45 FBI offices in the United States and one in Paris — were being archived in December.
Ashcroft said he was instructing the inspector general of the Justice Department to conduct “a careful study” into what went wrong.
“We are going beyond the requirements of the law,” he said.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the panel will hold hearings on “the FBI’s inability to comply with basic legal procedures.” He said the hearings would follow the investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The failure to turn over the documents is one several “colossal mistakes” by the bureau, said Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Coulson blamed a computer-filing glitch, saying the documents were keyed into FBI computers by field offices but not flagged or cross-referenced to the bombing case. “I’m sure there’s nothing there that changes the outcome of the case, but it makes the FBI look bad,” Coulson said.
Nigh urged a moratorium on all federal executions.
But Bush, who was governor of Texas while 152 inmates were put to death, reaffirmed his faith in the death penalty Friday.
“Today is an example of the system being fair,” Bush said.
“There is never going to be an end to the twists and turns,” sighed Jim Denny, whose two children were injured in the 1995 blast. “As long as justice comes in the end.”