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McVeigh Executed, Death Penalty Debate Continues - 2001-12-26

In 2001, the United States government executed its first Death Row prisoner since the 1960s, but the number of executions overall declined for the second straight year. Still, public opinion polls suggest most Americans still support capital punishment.

Of the 66 executions in the United States this year, none received the attention given to convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The warden at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana announced McVeigh's on the morning of June 11. "Timothy James McVeigh has been executed by lethal injection," he said. "He was pronounced dead at 7:14 am, Central Daylight Time."

McVeigh was the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. Overall, executions in the United States declined for the second year in a row the first time that has happened since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

It's good news to Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. "It is not just executions that are down; death sentences are down considerably," he said. "Death Row, the population of Death Row, which had been climbing every year, is down."

About 3,700 people nationwide currently sit on Death Row. Thirty-eight U.S. states and the federal government have the death penalty for certain crimes. One state,Illinois, is nearing the second anniversary of its moratorium on executions, while a commission appointed by Governor George Ryan studies why 13 Illinois inmates sentenced to death since the late 1970s were later exonerated and set free. "There are still many questions, very serious questions, about our system," he said. "I am a strong proponent of tough criminal penalties. We have to ensure the public safety of our citizens, but in doing so, we have to ensure that the ends of justice are served. It is merely a question of fairness and of what's right."

Governor Ryan supports the death penalty, but says he wants the commission to recommend ways Illinois can be sure it never accidentally executed an innocent person. Public opinion polls suggest 65 percent of Americans still support capital punishment, but that number is slipping. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center says in 1994, support for executions was up around 80 percent. "The public is in a process of rethinking their position on the death penalty: learning more about it, it is being discussed more in churches and schools," he said. "I think the more people know about the death penalty, the more they will be disturbed about these problems that exist."

Those who support executions say it can bring a sense of closure to loved ones of murder victims. Paul Hill lost a daughter in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and was among a few victims' family members to watch McVeigh die in Indiana. "My emotion was it was a big relief, just a big sigh came over my body and felt real good, sir," he said

Among those who could join Death Row in 2002 is a suburban Chicago woman named Marilyn Lemak, recently convicted of killing her three children in 1999. Prosecutors accused her of killing the children in anger, because her husband had begun seeing another woman before their divorce was final. The children's father, David Lemak, has not said publicly whether he thinks his former wife should be executed. "I miss my children dearly," she said. "But, I am helped greatly by knowing there are so many other people family, friends, people that I barely know who have expressed to me their love for them [the children]."

A judge will determine early in the New Year whether to send Marilyn Lemak to Death Row.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001