Recent public opinion polls indicate that 75 to 80 percent of Americans support Monday's scheduled execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Pro-death penalty activists insist that the McVeigh execution will bolster public support for capital punishment. But anti-death penalty groups are working hard to counter that view.
Supporters of the death penalty are encouraged by recent opinion polls that indicate that even among those people who usually oppose capital punishment, a clear majority favor Timothy McVeigh's execution.
In fact, some death penalty supporters expect that the McVeigh case will boost public support for capital punishment.
Diane Clements, with the Houston-based group Justice For All, says "so while people are comfortable with executing McVeigh because they know all of the issues, they should be just as comfortable with executing other equally guilty, culpable, non-remorseful individuals."
But death penalty opponents are not giving up. In fact, they welcome the renewed debate over capital punishment sparked by the McVeigh case.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, says "I do not think that they see this as great support for the death penalty. This shows, in fact, one of the key problems with the death penalty, that it distorts the whole process by putting all the emphasis on a single person."
Several polls indicate that generic public support for the death penalty has slipped in recent years, from about 77 percent five-years ago to about 63 percent today.
Ajamu Baraka directs an anti-death penalty program for Amnesty International USA. He predicts the McVeigh case will do little to alter the current debate. Mr. Baraka also expects a negative international reaction to the McVeigh execution that he believes could help death penalty opponents in the long run. "So there is a clear trend in the international community away from the use of the death penalty," he says. "And therefore, the argument made by U.S. authorities that McVeigh has to be executed because of his crime does not really set well with our European allies, and with many other people around the world."
Indiana University professor Marla Sandys has studied public views on the death penalty for the past 15-years. She says the McVeigh case may cause a short-term burst of public support for capital punishment, but she does not expect it to last. "If we have another case of innocence that gets a lot of publicity, I think again you will see people sort going back to the opposition," she says. "So in the long run, I do not think that there is going to be a huge effect of this execution."
Attorney General John Ashcroft postponed McVeigh's execution for one month after the discovery of FBI evidence that was withheld by defense attorneys. Some legal experts believe the problems highlighted in the McVeigh case could cause prosecutors to be more careful with evidence in future death-penalty cases.
Ira Robbins is an expert on capital punishment at American University's Washington College of Law. "The government sometimes withholds evidence intentionally. Sometimes it does so negligently, unintentionally," he says. "But it happens so often that I think one of the positive consequences of this attention to the McVeigh case will be that state and federal prosecutors will have to revisit their procedures for dealing with evidence."
The most immediate impact of the McVeigh execution will be felt by the relatives of his victims, some of whom will watch his lethal injection on a special closed circuit television broadcast.
Paul Heath is one of the leaders of the Oklahoma City Survivors Association. Although he personally opposes the death penalty, he expects a small measure of satisfaction from Timothy McVeigh's death. "This event will never leave the collective memory and the individual memories of those of us who experienced it," he says. "And for me personally, it should not. But what it should do is challenge me to not allow it to affect my everyday reality, but live with the memory."
Death penalty supporters contend McVeigh's death will bring closure and peace to those who lost loved ones in Oklahoma City. Paul Heath says he has no such illusions.