McVeigh's Final Day Before Execution

As the minutes tick down to the first Federal execution in decades, Sam Donaldson spoke with three of the people who have tried to understand Timothy McVeigh and his motives for killing 168 people in 1995: authors Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel, and attorney Nathan Chambers. The following is a partial transcript of those conversations.

COKIE ROBERTS, ABCNEWS Early this morning, a little more than 24 hours before his execution, Timothy McVeigh was moved to a holding cell near the execution chamber. The Bureau of Prisons reports the transfer occurred without any incident. McVeigh offered no resistance, Sam.

SAM DONALDSON, ABCNEWS Well, Cokie, McVeigh has revealed more of his thinking as he prepares for death in a series of letters sent to The Buffalo News. And joining us now from Terre Haute outside the prison are Buffalo News reporters Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel.

Gentlemen, welcome.



DONALDSON Why do you think McVeigh sent these letters here at the last minute? Lou?

MICHEL I think he wanted it clearly known to the people of Oklahoma City that he meant them no harm; specifically, that it was the federal government, he believed, that backed him into a corner, and he had to strike back because he thought they were coming after him. He tore a page from, he said, U.S. government foreign policy and bombed the Murrah Building just as a president would order a bombing on Bosnia or Iraq.

DONALDSON Well, in talking to you about the book you wrote, American Terrorist, in which he talked about collateral damage — referring to the children killed that day — he seems to say much the same thing. Let me just read a passage from one of these new letters and have you comment on it. McVeigh told you, "I am sorry these people had to lose their lives. But that's the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll will be." Dan?

HERBECK He has always talked to us about this bombing in the role of a soldier. And maybe that's the only way he can deal with what he's done, looking at it as a soldier who has done a mission and, in his mind, mission accomplished. He always describes it in military terms.

DONALDSON And he continues to say in these letters to you that it was Waco. That if it hadn't been for that Waco incident, he might just have lived his life in an ordinary way. Do you believe that?

HERBECK Well, I wouldn't pin this whole thing on Waco. But when we asked Tim McVeigh to go through his memories and try and fix for us what would be the single defining moment that pushed him toward Oklahoma City, he told us it was Waco. And he said, after the massacre, as he called it, at Waco, he felt that no American gun owner was safe in their own home. And he said "From that point on, I knew I was going to take action against the US government."

DONALDSON In these letters to you that you're publishing this morning, once again, he talks about his belief or nonbelief in an afterlife. And he said, "I will improvise, adapt and overcome. If I'm going to hell, I'm going to have a lot of company."

What does that mean to you, Dan?

HERBECK Well, he is an agnostic. He doesn't believe in God, but he has told us he doesn't not believe in God.… Death is part of his adventure, as he describes it to us. And hee told us that when he finds out if there is an afterlife, he will improvise, adapt and overcome just like they taught him in the Army.

DONALDSON Well, Lou, I've got to observe that there is a great saying from World War II: "There are no atheists in the fox holes." The true soldiers of this country, I think, perhaps have expressed that view.

But let me now read just a passage of a poem, that I understand and you tell me, that McVeigh either wants to read or have out there on his death. It's from "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, and I'll read the last stanza. And it goes this way: It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.

What do you make of that, Lou?

MICHEL I think it's classic Timothy McVeigh in the sense that he has never marched to the beat of any drummer but himself. Very independent and doesn't see it… It's defiance, too, in a sense that he's going out and he feels that he succeeded.

He once told me that in the crudest of terms it's 168-to-1, and he feels he is the victor. He has made his point, and he is now going on to whatever is the next step.

DONALDSON So when he says he's sorry before then, talking about that's the nature of the game, we really shouldn't look at that word "sorry" as meaning anything in the terms that we might understand it if we were saying it to someone in a way of true contrition?

MICHEL No, it would be a mistake to extrapolate from that that he has remorse for the bombing. He sincerely believes he did what was necessary to the U.S. government. He wanted a body count. He called it the collateral damage, the fortunes of war.

DONALDSON In the many hours you spent with him in writing your book, aside from his stated reasons, Waco, his hatred for the United States government, did you get any insight of what really may have made this guy tick? Dan:

HERBECK Sam, I think that one of the things that we write about in our book, which hasn't been talked about that much, is his deep love for his grandfather. And when he was a young man, a young boy, his grandfather would take him out for long walks along the Erie Canal and he taught him how to shoot and he taught him all about gun safety. And there was no one in the world that Tim loved more than his grandfather.

And I think that later on in life, when he felt the U.S. government was trying to take guns away from himself and other gun owners, I think he really viewed that as an assault in a way on his relationship with his grandfather, who he loved so much. And I think that was in the mix in what led him to Oklahoma City.

DONALDSON Well, I believe I'm correct that you have not spoken to him recently. And I have been given to understand, though, that through family members — McVeigh family members — he sort of sent word that if you have something to say to him, you ought to say it to him.

Dan, do you have anything to say at this point to Timothy McVeigh?

HERBECK Hmm. I guess I would just say to him that I hope that in his final words he does not say anything hurtful toward the victims of Oklahoma City. Those people have been hurt enough, and I think he realizes that. I'd be very surprised if he makes any more hurtful statements tomorrow.

DONALDSON Lou, what do you say to Timothy McVeigh?

MICHEL Well, I know that his family wants him to know that they love him very much, and that people have told them from across the country that they're praying in churches for him. And on a personal note, I would like to thank him for the cooperation he gave for American Terrorist, the book we wrote.

There's a cottage industry of conspiracy in this country, and no doubt it will go into overdrive when he passes. But unlike other crimes, we know more about this crime because of his openness. And I think it's to our peril if we try to ignore him and his life. I think we should understand him, because we don't want other Oklahoma City bombings.

DONALDSON Gentlemen, thank you. Dan Herbeck, Lou Michel of The Buffalo News, thanks for being with us.

May I remind everyone that McVeigh did not receive a penny from the publication of that book.…

Four people invited by McVeigh will be among the witnesses. Lou Michel, author and reporter; Bob Nigh, defense attorney; Nathan Chambers, defense attorney; and Cate McCauley, defense investigator. Author Gore Vidal was also invited, but sent word that he could not make it because he didn't have enough advance notice and he will not be replaced.…

It was McVeigh's decision not to appeal to the Supreme Court in an attempt to delay his execution once the court of appeals turned down his original request. This was a decision made in consultation with his lawyers.

Nathan Chambers, one of McVeigh's principal attorneys, joins us now from Terre Haute. Welcome, Mr. Chambers.


DONALDSON Am I correct that last Thursday you had about a 90-minute session with Timothy McVeigh, the last outside person from the prison to have seen him?

CHAMBERS Yes, sir, that's correct.

DONALDSON And the decision was made not to appeal. Why not?

CHAMBERS I think that Mr. Mcveigh was at a point where he wanted some certainty. He realized that to continue the fight was a long shot, the chance of obtaining relief was slim. And he also realized that if he had gone to the Supreme Court, there would be at least another day, perhaps a couple more days of uncertainty about his future. And having so little time left, he wanted to know exactly what his fate would be so that he could prepare for Monday.

DONALDSON How would you describe his mood? Was he angry? Was he resigned? Was he content? How would you describe him?

CHAMBERS No, he was not angry at all, Sam. He wass in very good spirits. He was upbeat, and I've spoken to him since then, and he is at peace with the decision he's made.

DONALDSON Well, I ask about the word anger, because there's so much testimony from his own writings included about his anger toward the federal government — his reason, as he gave it, for the bombing that day. Now, did he express anger toward the federal government in any way?

CHAMBERS Not in my most recent meetings with him. You know, we've had discussions along those lines before; but not in the most recent meetings.

DONALDSON Am I correct, you will talk to him this afternoon, again?

CHAMBERS Yes, sir. That's right, I will, Sam.

DONALDSON Well, is there any chance he may have changed his mind and said, "Mr. Chambers, let's, in fact, appeal to the Supreme Court."

CHAMBERS Well, you know, Sam, when a question is phrased, "Is there any chance?" I'm always hesitant to give categorical answers. I suppose there's always a chance; but I'd say the chances of that are slim at best. I'm sure Mr. McVeigh has made his final decision. He is resolved.

DONALDSON As you know, Mr. Chambers, another appeal has been made to the Supreme Court in another case, but having to do with your client, asking that your client's death be videotaped. So then this other case, the defense can make the argument that an execution is a cruel and unusual punishment. McVeigh gave his permission for that, didn't he?

CHAMBERS Yes, he did.


CHAMBERS Well, you know, this issue is one that has come up several times in the last couple of months — whether or not the execution should be broadcast or videotaped. And Mr. McVeigh's attitude toward that has been consistent. He has never sought to have his execution broadcast or videotaped. By the same token, he's never objected. It's been his view that if someone wants to broadcast the execution or if taping the execution can be of use to someone in the future, he wouldn't object to it.

DONALDSON You are going to be a witness to his death. What do you think will be going through your head?

CHAMBERS I don't know, Sam.

DONALDSON Have you ever seen an execution before?

CHAMBERS No, I have not.

DONALDSON I don't know how to ask you the question as to whether you're looking forward to it because the answer is going to be no; but, do you feel it's your duty? What sort of reason that you have in your own mind as to why you're there?

CHAMBERS Well, my client asked me to be there and that's the reason I'm there. As his attorney, it's part of my job to be there. I also feel that no one should face the executioner alone; and I intend to be there for him.

DONALDSON Mr. Chambers, people who are accused of crimes in this country deserve defense, and good lawyers, such as yourself, defend them. And that's the way the system works. But I want you to step back right now and tell me… Since you have gotten to know him, what do you think of Timothy McVeigh?

CHAMBERS Well, you know, Tim is a very interesting guy. He's very intelligent. You can have very intelligent discussions with him, and logical. He is also personable. He is affable. He has a sense of humor.

And there's a huge disconnect for me, between the person I've gotten to know over the last couple of years and what happened in Oklahoma City. It's hard to connect the two. You know, I think that the work that Dan and Lou did is very important to help us try to understand.

DONALDSON Do intelligent people blow up 168 men, women and children?

CHAMBERS He's an intelligent guy. He is not stupid. He is a smart person. I think that, you know, his intelligence is misguided, but he's smart.

DONALDSON Mr. Chambers, thank you very much for joining us today. Nathan Chambers, one of Timothy McVeigh's principal attorneys.