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McVeigh Execution Draws Activists From Both Sides of Death Penalty Debate - 2001-06-10

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is spending the last full day of his life in a holding cell next to the execution chamber at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. McVeigh is scheduled to be put to death Monday for the 1995 truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured hundreds of others.

McVeigh's execution has drawn activists on both sides of the death penalty debate as well as an unusual mix of people who have made the trip to Terre Haute for religious and personal reasons.

Indiana State Highway 63 runs right in front of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. That is where you will find Hilmas Kenster, an Army veteran who drove to the prison from his home in Colombus, Ohio, to pray for Timothy McVeigh. He said, "The Lord wanted me to give McVeigh my testimony and to witness to him and to pray with him before he dies because he has committed these crimes that according to the word of God we have to follow the laws of the land. I am not here to condemn anybody that is for or against the death penalty. I am just here to witness to him and to testify to him and God wishes that no soul should perish."

Mr. Kenster is one of only a handful of demonstrators who are maintaining a vigil outside the prison where McVeigh will be put to death by lethal injection Monday.

Another is Harold Smith, an unemployed former postal worker who drove 15 hours from Albany, New York, to protest McVeigh's execution. Mr. Smith drove through Timothy McVeigh's hometown of Pendleton, New York, in a failed attempt to meet with McVeigh's father.

Although he opposes the execution, Harold Smith says he is also praying for the people of Oklahoma City. He said, "I want the people of Oklahoma City to know that I feel their pain and have been praying for them since day one. I know their hurt and their sorrow and their anger and I am praying for them that when this [execution] happens it will, in fact, bring them the closure and the opportunity to be able to unselfishly love again. I would hope that it will."

McVeigh's execution has made Terre Haute ground zero in the ongoing national debate over capital punishment. Opinion polls indicate that most Americans, even those who usually oppose the death penalty, support McVeigh's execution.

But death penalty opponents are not giving up. Bryan Bergert has spent hours in front of the prison urging passing motorists to oppose capital punishment. Mr. Bergert said, "I just do not think it makes much sense to kill somebody for killing other people. It does not seem logical at all. I think it is morally wrong. There are many arguments against the death penalty, but I just think it is wrong at the very bottom. Fundamentally wrong."

But there is strong support for the death penalty in Indiana, especially in the case of Timothy McVeigh. And while some passing motorists toot their horns in support of the death penalty opponents, others stop their car and engage in an impromptu debate. "He deserves what he gets," said one woman. "He should die. He will die. We support the death penalty 100 percent."

Demonstrators on both sides of the capital punishment divide will be allowed to protest in separate areas on the prison grounds in the hours leading up to McVeigh's execution on Monday. In addition to the demonstrators, more than 1,000 journalists from around the world are here to chronicle McVeigh's final hours and his execution by lethal injection.

Photos by Craig Fitzpatrick, VOA