U.S. postpones McVeigh execution until June 11
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft Friday delayed the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh for one month, until June 11, because of the FBI's failure to provide his trial defense with more than 500 documents from its investigation.
Ashcroft said he did not expect anything in the files of FBI witness interview notes, photographs and tapes to contradict the verdict against McVeigh, who was sentenced to die for the 1995 truck bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people.
But Ashcroft said questions posed by the withholding of the documents were serious and that it was his duty to "protect the integrity of the system of justice."
"I know many Americans will question why the execution of someone who is clearly guilty of such a heinous crime should be delayed. I understand the victims and victims' family members await justice," he said.
"But if any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice, diminishing its value and questioning its integrity."
The one-month delay was granted "to allow his attorneys ample and adequate time to review these documents and to take any action they might deem appropriate in that interval," Ashcroft said. He said he had asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate why the FBI failed to turn over the documents.
President Bush was asked at a later news conference whether FBI Director Louis Freeh had told him about the undisclosed files when he announced his retirement last week. "The subject never came up," Bush said.
As former governor of Texas, the state with the nation's most executions, Bush said he has no doubts of McVeigh's guilt in America's worst mass murder. "Mr. McVeigh, as I recall, said he did it. I take him for his word."
Ashcroft made clear that he felt the responsibility for the legal foul-up belonged to the FBI.
McVeigh admitted in a recently published biography that he was responsible for the bombing. He earlier waived his appeals, telling his attorneys he would rather be put to death than spend his life in prison.
Richard Burr, a death penalty specialist who helped defend McVeigh and is a consultant for his legal team, told CNN Friday a stay would not require a court order because the execution was not court-ordered. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons would make any decision on a delay, he said.
"The government is fully in charge of what happens," Burr said. "It ought to withdraw the execution date ... Its hands are not tied by anything Tim McVeigh wishes. He cannot make them kill him."
Jones said he doubted the release of the documents would not do anything to exonerate McVeigh.
"There's not much [McVeigh] can accomplish, because unfortunately, against his lawyers' advice, he went public and said, 'I did it,'" Jones said. "Once he says that, then it's kind of hard for him to come back and say, 'Well, these documents may exonerate me,' because he's pulled the rug out from under that argument."
Jones has long contended McVeigh was part of a larger conspiracy and stated his guilt to protect others. "Not everybody is locked up," he told CNN Friday. "There are others still out there."
The U.S. attorney in Denver informed McVeigh's defense team Tuesday of what the FBI called an oversight it only recently discovered -- that investigative documents, including reports on FBI interviews, photographs, letters and tapes were withheld from McVeigh's defense.
The materials included more than 3,100 pages of documents, audiotapes and videotapes.
One source familiar with the case said the mistakenly withheld documents also concern Nichols and Michael Fortier, who served with McVeigh and Nichols in the Army. The source insisted the documents contained no evidence that would have exonerated them.
Nichols was convicted of helping to build the bomb and prepare for the attack. He was sentenced to life in prison and still faces state charges.
Fortier, who knew of the bombing plan but did not alert authorities, testified against McVeigh. He is serving a 12-year federal sentence for his role.
The Justice Department turned over the materials to McVeigh's attorneys, and asked to be notified if the attorneys believe any of them create doubt about McVeigh's guilt. But FBI and Justice officials said the materials contained "nothing that could put McVeigh's conviction in jeopardy."
Burr said a delay was needed simply to sort through the various documents. "If there are witnesses the government interviewed who suggest other people were involved or that Tim McVeigh was not involved, those are critical matters that would have to be investigated."
Patrick Ryan, the prosecutor in McVeigh's 1997 trial said prosecutors too would scrutinize the material.
"One of the things that has been said over and over again since yesterday afternoon is that the government failed to turn these materials over to the defense," he said. "The point has not been made that the FBI didn't turn these materials over to the prosecution either. These are not materials we're familiar with either."
CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena and Charles Bierbauer in Washington, Susan Candiotti and Gina London in Denver, Bob Franken in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Justice Department Producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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