Opponents of the death penalty, who have been swimming against the tide of public sentiment for more than 20 years, say they see some hope this week in the national debate over whether Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh deserves to die.
Based strictly on the facts of the case, McVeigh would seem to deserve the ultimate punishment. Deliberately and maliciously, he planned and carried out an attack that killed 168 innocent men, women and children simply in order to make a political statement.
And he has shown no remorse for his crime, no compassion for suffering survivors. Tears came to his eyes only when his family pleaded for his life.
Yet, according to several national polls, public support for putting McVeigh to death is not overwhelming, and dissent by a single juror could spare his life.
“If he doesn’t get a death sentence, it could have a big effect, because other cases would seem minor in comparison to this,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center here. “Even if he gets it, this case might set a new test for when the death penalty is appropriate - only for the worst of the worst.
Most Americans seem to have made up their minds about the death penalty long ago, at least in the abstract. Since the mid-1980s, polls have consistently found that about three-fourths of the public supports capital punishment.
This marks a sharp shift from the mid-1960s, when both the public and the courts moved to abolish the practice. A 1966 Gallup poll found that only 42 percent of Americans supported capital punishment, while 47 percent opposed it.