A City Consumed in Plans for McVeigh's Execution
Sara Rimer/The New York Times, April 19, 2002
Mayor Judith A. Anderson would rather be devoting her energy to getting a Target store for Terre Haute. Instead, she is spending more and more time fielding questions about what is to happen on the outskirts of this western Indiana city at 7 a.m. on May 16: the execution of Timothy J. McVeigh by lethal injection.
''A lot of people have been calling asking if they can sell T-shirts and buttons,'' Ms. Anderson said in her office at City Hall, three miles from the sprawling United States Penitentiary, which has the only federal death chamber in the country. ''We have no control over what they sell. We're just asking that it be in very good taste.'' So far, the signs are not hopeful. Already a T-shirt is being offered on eBay bearing a picture of a syringe and the words: ''Hoosier Hospitality. McVeigh / Terre Haute / May 16, 2001, Final Justice.''
But T-shirts are probably the least of the concerns in Terre Haute, which is expecting an invasion by an unknown number of protesters, camera crews, reporters, sightseers and visiting entrepreneurs for an event that will bring some finality to one of the most horrific crimes in American history: the deaths of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Yet for all the symbolism and emotion surrounding the execution, the first by the federal government in nearly 40 years, Terre Haute has more practical concerns.
The prison warden, Harley G. Lappin, has been holding public meetings for months, outlining the elaborate security and administrative procedures, down to special buses for disabled protesters.
''Our interest is to manage this in as professional a way as we can,'' Mr. Lappin said at a meeting at the prison on Tuesday night with some 160 local residents.
One of them, Tina Halstead, the owner of Little Cee's pizza parlor across the street from the prison, wondered if she would able to deliver pizzas to the guards that day.
Mr. Lappin assured the audience that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been issuing regular ''threat assessment reports,'' and that no specific threats to Terre Haute had been uncovered.
As for the execution itself, the warden and his staff will be following a 56-page Federal Execution Protocol that calls for it to be carried out ''in an efficient and humane manner.''
The lethal injection administered to Mr. McVeigh, 32, who was convicted of murder in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, will be the first federal execution since 1963, when Victor Feguer, 28, was hanged at the Iowa State Penitentiary, for kidnapping and killing a doctor.
''We've been practicing,'' Mr. Lappin, 45, said after Tuesday's meeting. ''We want to make sure this goes very, very well.''
But while federal officials intend to tightly manage what takes place at the prison -- and in Oklahoma City, where survivors and relatives of victims in the bombing will watch the execution on closed-circuit television -- Terre Haute will have to improvise.
''We've never had an execution,'' said George Azar, the owner of the popular downtown Saratoga restaurant. ''We don't know what to expect.''
More than 1,300 members of the news media have registered for press credentials. Nearly all the hotel rooms are booked. No one knows how many protesters will show up. Reporters and television crews will not be allowed to park on the prison grounds or along the two-lane road that runs in front of it.
Larry Taylor, who lives across from the federal prison, says he has received telephone calls from the networks about possibly using his property as a parking lot. ''ABC wants to park 40 to 50 cars for four or five days,'' Mr. Taylor said.
Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News, said the call to Mr. Taylor about parking might have been made by the network's affiliates. The network tends to overplan for all contingencies, Mr. Schneider said, and would probably not park dozens of cars on Mr. Taylor's land.
The school superintendent, Daniel Tanoos, has announced that for security reasons all schools will be closed, leaving 16,000 students with the day off. ''We're treating this like any other day, except we're out of school,'' Mr. Tanoos said at a news conference that the warden held at the prison today.
All over Terre Haute, a friendly, unpretentious city known as the former home of the basketball star Larry Bird, people echo the school superintendent's mixed message: They say they want May 16 to be a regular day, and yet they acknowledge that it cannot be.
''This is a very unnatural act,'' the warden said at today's news conference.
The Police Department will have its entire force, 124 officers, on duty to help with traffic, crowd control and any unforeseen incidents.
''We're not proud of the fact that the federal government decided they're going to house the death chamber here,'' the assistant police chief, Jeff Trotter, said. ''We're going to make the best of it.''
With the execution still a month away, Mr. Trotter said he was already getting tired of the attention from the news media. ''I just want us to go back to being a normal, Midwestern, second-class city,'' he said during an interview in his office on Tuesday afternoon. ''No more foreign press interviews.''
Besides the local police, hundreds of other law enforcement officials, county, state and federal, will also be in Terre Haute, in the days leading up to the execution.
''We are hoping that this mission will be without incident,'' Frank Anderson, the United States marshal for the Southern District of Indiana, said at today's news conference. ''We want this to be a peaceful situation.''
All 10 reporters at the local newspaper, The Tribune-Star, will be covering the execution, and the frenzy surrounding it. Almost every day now, the newspaper runs a front page article on the preparations.
''We eat, sleep and breathe McVeigh,'' said one reporter, Suzanne Risley, who was covering Tuesday night's meeting at the prison.
At the public meeting this week, the warden did not mention Mr. McVeigh's name, instead referring to him as ''the inmate,'' or ''a very high publicity individual.'' Asked about Mr. McVeigh afterward, however, he did say that he had been ''very cooperative.''
Mr. McVeigh has asked to be put to death and has refused to file any appeals that would stop the execution.
While the possibility of a delay seems remote, federal officials acknowledge that Mr. McVeigh could change his mind up until two hours before the execution, when he has his last opportunity to meet with his lawyers, and could request a last-minute appeal. For the appeal to be granted, however, he would have to show new evidence that he is not guilty, said Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
''The execution will go forward unless a court intervenes,'' Ms. Tucker said.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the warden explained that demonstrators would begin gathering at separate parks -- death-penalty supporters in Voorhees Park, opponents in Fairbanks Park -- at 6 P.M. the day before the execution. Prison buses will begin transporting them to separate areas of the prison grounds, in separate buses, starting at midnight. Protesters will be allowed to bring Bibles, candles with wind protectors, cell phones, beepers, medication, and signs that can be rolled up, but no tubes or two-by-fours.
''We'll provide the water,'' Mr. Lappin said.
In an informal survey of dozens of people around town, the majority said they favored Mr. McVeigh's execution.
''He took another person's life,'' said Rhonda Baer, 31, a waitress. ''He deserves to die.''
But the nuns of the Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic order based on the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College here, have been praying for Mr. McVeigh.
''The challenge is not to forget that Timothy McVeigh is a human being,'' Sister Joan Slobig said.
''You have to stay clear and consistent that if life is holy, we don't have a right to take a life under any circumstances,'' Sister Joan said.
She said the nuns would open their chapel to the public for a prayer service for Mr. McVeigh and his family, as well as for the families of the bombing victims.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sister Joan watched a video of a recent meeting that the warden held at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. ''Once the execution has been accomplished,'' the warden explained to the audience, which included a number of death penalty opponents, ''someone will come out and inform you that the individual has died, and you may return to your vehicles.''
''The buses will be running,'' he said.