Rethinking the death penalty
Terrorism may have altered public sentiment


Sep 30, 2001

Julie Marie Welch was a 23-year-old Spanish translator for the Social Security Administration who died on April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a massive bomb.

A year after her death, her father, Bud Welch, became a tireless opponent of capital punishment, opposing even the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the home-grown terrorist who claimed the life of his daughter and 167 others.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Welch left Oklahoma City on a Washington-bound TWA flight to attend an anti-death penalty rally.

Shortly after 9:15 a.m. Central time, while they were on the ground for a scheduled stop in St. Louis, the pilot announced they weren't going anywhere.

Terrorists, operating on a scale that made McVeigh's atrocity pale in comparison, had grounded Welch's flight.

And some activists fighting against the death penalty wonder whether the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and assault on the Pentagon may have grounded their movement.

Just when polls, a decline in executions and an apparent increase in scrutiny given by courts to death cases appeared to signal a weakening of support for capital punishment in the United States, along came the most heinous criminal acts in the nation's history.

Osama bin Laden is wanted dead or alive by President Bush, and most Americans may be in no frame of mind to be listening to arguments against the death penalty.

With 49 executions thus far this year, it appears the country is headed for the second straight year of a drop in the number of executions - something not seen for two decades. Texas, the national leader, has had 13 executions, compared with 40 last year. Virginia, second in the United States, has only had one exe- cution compared with eight last year.

In July a Harris poll found support for the death penalty at 67 percent, down from 75 percent in 1997. A USA Today poll in May found support for the death penalty at 59 percent.

Nevertheless, the public was so outraged by McVeigh that even 22 percent of those who were opposed to executions in the USA Today poll said they favored McVeigh's execution in June.

The national demand that those behind the Sept. 11 attacks be appropriately punished may be even stronger.

"I think what we're seeing here is this thirst for vengeance," said Henry Heller, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a Charlottesville-based group.

"People are reconsidering things. They're very upset," said Heller. He contends that vengeance "is being telegraphed by our leaders and I'm afraid it will trickle down to vengeance all around and this just doesn't help anybody. This just eats away at our own society."

But, Heller said, "even McVeigh's execution did not [foment] this big, pro-death penalty feeling. Actually when McVeigh was executed there were a lot of people asking why we were doing this."

Anne V. Hamilton of Northern Virginia, with Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, helped organize a speaking engagement for Welch last Sunday in Alexandria.

"I would say we're still - like everyone else - sorting through the aftermath and deciding if this helps or hurts us," she said. "Not everyone in this country is gung ho, kill, kill, kill. There are a lot of people in this country who are using the opportunity to reflect."

Welch does not believe the events of Sept. 11 have set back the efforts of death penalty opponents.

"The knee jerk reaction when a dastardly crime happens is . . . fry the bastard. I mean that's the way most Americans are," said Welch. He said he was like that after his daughter was slain. But he said his thirst for vengeance was not contributing to his healing.

It took about a year for Welch to decide he didn't want McVeigh executed. He is now on the board of directors for Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. "Our issue that we're after is abolishing the death penalty in the United States for run of the mill, capital murder cases," he said.

But, "international terrorism is a different issue. My view is, if we know, in fact, it was bin Laden . . . and others and we can pinpoint those people and it becomes necessary to assassinate those people - I say we do it to stop the terrorism.

"What I'm opposed to is making a peaceful arrest of him and bringing him here to this country and trying him, putting him on death row and eight to 10 years from now taking him out and killing him. That's what I'm opposed to. I see no benefit in that."

Dianne Clements, spokeswoman for the Houston-based Justice for All, a victim advocacy group that favors capital punishment, said if the people behind the Sept. 11 attacks "are ever brought to the United States and tried, the overwhelming majority of citizens would want them to be eligible for the death penalty."

"Does it filter down to individual states and individual cases?" she said. "I think it will because people will recognize that horrific crime, if it's on a national or international scale, is as horrific when it's on a very personal scale."

Joshua Marquis, a board member of the National District Attorneys Association and district attorney for Clatsop County, Ore., favors capital punishment in appropriate cases. Before Sept. 11, he said, "there was a very vigorous debate going on across the country" about executions.

But, said Marquis, "there's so many people who have died it's cast a pall on even as serious a subject - and maybe as relevant a subject - as the death penalty."

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6344 or 

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