SPENCER, Ind. — In a fluorescent-lit barn 40 miles from a federal penitentiary, Glenda Breeden applies paint to 14-foot-tall papier-mache puppets of Uncle Sam and Jesus.
Breeden and dozens of her friends plan to cart the garish puppets to the prison in Terre Haute for use in demonstrations against the May 16 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
For the first federal execution in nearly four decades, Uncle Sam will wear a banner that reads: “Stop Me Before I Kill Again.” A sign on the Jesus puppet will ask: “What Would Jesus Do?”
“It’s something visible,” Breeden said, her hands dripping with plaster. “It gets a lot of people’s attention.”
Similar preparations are happening elsewhere across the country as demonstrators get ready to descend on the U.S. Penitentiary. On execution day, 20 prison buses will transport demonstrators from city parks to the prison grounds, where McVeigh, 33, is scheduled to die by injection.
Tents will be put up on the grassy field outside the prison to shelter demonstrators, and straw bales will provide limited seating. Warden Harley Lappin has met with state and national anti-death penalty groups, explaining detailed rules they must follow. Breeden’s puppets won’t be permitted on the grounds – only signs that can be rolled up are allowed.
“The folks we’ve talked with have indicated that they plan to come here and be law-abiding, peaceful protesters,” Lappin said. “We realize what we’re facing. ... It’s the execution of someone who’s very high profile in nature.”
Some death penalty opponents say McVeigh’s notoriety is not a factor – they would be protesting any execution.
“For most of us, it’s really about public policy and should the government be in the business of killing people,” said Abe Bonowitz, director of the national organization Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Bonowitz, who plans to lead a march in Terre Haute the day before the execution, said his organization is encouraging people nationwide to hold vigils and protests in their communities.
Demonstrators in Massachusetts will take to Boston Common the night before the execution, passing out anti-death penalty fliers and holding a vigil. Around the same time, there will be a demonstration in front of the federal building in Fresno, and an interfaith prayer service in Tucson, Ariz. Similar events are scheduled in Florida, Washington, Missouri and Nebraska.
In Oklahoma City, a small vigil is being planned near the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but no major anti-death penalty demonstrations have been discussed, said Bud Welch, who has been an ardent death penalty opponent since his daughter, Julie, was killed in the bombing.
“It’s just going to be low-key,” said Welch, who plans to be in Terre Haute.
While the prison will fence off equal-sized areas for pro- and anti-death penalty advocates, Lappin said he has not heard from any pro-death penalty groups planning to attend.
Diane Clements, president of Houston-based Justice For All, said death penalty supporters don’t need to speak out – the courts have already spoken.
“People don’t generally go out and have public demonstrations in support of the law,” Clements said. “The execution will move forward no matter who’s standing outside the gates.”
The April 19, 1995, blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Building killed 168 people.
Death penalty opponents acknowledge the nature of McVeigh’s crime makes it hard for some to protest his execution. For others, the fact that it’s a federal execution makes it all the more important to speak out.
“Because it’s federal, some people who were never that active are saying, ’I finally have to do something, I have to do something now,”’ said Jill Farlow, an activist from Indiana. “Other people say, ’This was so heinous, I just can’t do this.”’
Breeden’s husband, Bill Breeden, who teaches a class on the death penalty at a Unitarian church in nearby Bloomington, sums up what he believes McVeigh’s execution will accomplish: “It’s really just giving him another fuse to light. We’re giving him exactly what he wants.”
On The Net:
Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty: http://www.cuadp.org
Justice For All: http://www.jfa.net