Same Planet, Different Worlds

death facility Terre Haute AP

CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen covered the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh and is in Terre Haute covering his execution.


The first thing you notice when you drive on Interstate 70 from the airport in Indianapolis to the federal prison in Terre Haute is how green and lush the countryside is. There are beautiful farms, gorgeous groves of trees, crops, and gentle, sloping hills. It is still Springtime in America, remember; the harsh winter is long past and the steamy summer is still to come.

What is McVeigh thinking today? Is he thinking about his Sundays growing up in upstate New York? A football fan, is he thinking about watching his beloved Buffalo Bills? What did he think about yesterday, his last Saturday on earth? Did he think about his Saturday nights as a child, or as a teenager going out with his buddies? Did he think about watching cartoons on Saturday mornings as a child? Or did he think about that fateful Saturday in April 1995, just days before the bombing, when he was getting ready to load that Ryder truck with all those bomb components?


CBS
CBSNews.com Legal Analyst
Andrew Cohen

In many ways, Terre Haute looks and feels a lot like a larger version of some of the military towns McVeigh rambled around in during his time in the Army. There is one main drag, Third Street (or Route 41, depending upon your perspective), which is littered with chain restaurants and fast food joints. There are a lot of churches and a lot of veteran and military-types. At my hotel, when I checked in Saturday afternoon, there was a military bake sale of sorts, with veterans sitting around in ceremonial garb wondering whether I would buy a Marine Corps sticker. And on television I see that if I stay in Terre Haute until next Saturday, I can go to a park where there will be a World War II battle re-enactment, having to do with the Pacific theatre, for what that's worth. Oh, and everyone seems to smoke. Everyone. In restaurants. In bars. Outside the hotel.

Did he sleep last night? And, if so, did he think, just as he awoke, during that brief instant when sleep ends but consciousness hasn't taken hold, that he was somewhere other than in the execution facility, doing something other than waiting for his own death? Or did he not sleep at all and just wait for the prison officials to come and take him to that facility? Would he want to sleep to escape, or would he want to participate in every single moment of the last day of his life? And has there ever been an execution of a person so known tthe world?

The road to the prison is a pretty two-lane stretch, with the big, brown, muddy Wabash River on one side and more small houses and farms on the other. To get to the main prison entrance, you first drive by the U.S. Penitentiary Training Center and a sign, on the other side of the road, memorializing "Miss Softball America." The prison land is immense, some 1,100 acres, and, but for the barbed wire and low, red-brick facilities, you easily could think you were on the edge of an enormous plantation. And then you see the cars and the campers and the trailers and the satellite trucks and the tents and you realize precisely where you are.

He's got to be thinking about his parents. Thinking about how his father feels right now, that poor man whose life is crushed by all of this, but who will live to see his son's execution and the world's apparent glee at it. Or maybe McVeigh is thinking about his grandfather, whom he credits for teaching him to love guns. How McVeigh's life would be different if his grandfather were a pianist instead of a sportsman! It's hard for me to imagine, anyway, that he is sitting in the death house focusing upon the anti-government vitriol that got him to that place in the first place.

The media area, on the prison grounds but away from the actual buildings, looks and feels like a fairground or a circus. People ferry other people around on golf carts, people walk between the tents, and every network and local news organization seems to have staked out its own little turf; its own little compound. Even in a temporary village like this, it seems, we try to make neighborhoods so we can stay to ourselves. Meanwhile, a few picketers line the road by the main entrance and a helicopter flies overhead. Unless the inconceivable occurs, Timothy McVeigh has spent his last morning on earth.

What are his lawyers saying to him? What can they say to him? Did they fail him or did he fail them? Or did neither fail? Now that all the appeals are over, how does that conversation go? Will newspaper reporters and pretty anchors all over the world start to receive McVeigh letters later this week, after he is gone? And will those letters shed more light on him and his awful deed? Will he truly express remorse now that his hour is near? Or will he "dis" the Feds to the end. And when his final chance to speak comes, what will he say? What can he say? There are no words.

It is a June Sunday in Terre Haute and it is hot, hazy and humid. Kids are riding bikes and people are shopping and eating and driving in their cars. There is that world, and then there is McVeigh's world, but not for much longer.


By Andrew Cohen
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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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