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McVeigh Execution Delayed

Aired May 11, 2001 - 13:01   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The FBI is embarrassed, the lawyers are stunned, and the survivors of the worst act of domestic terror in U.S. history are outraged. It now appears the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh won't be carried out next week after all and maybe not for weeks after that.

As you've heard, McVeigh's attorneys, as well as the federal prosecutors who got him convicted, are sifting through 3,135 documents the FBI says it accidentally overlooked when McVeigh was on trial back in 1997.

The mistakes were discovered during some routine archiving and made public yesterday. FBI and Justice Department officials say there's nothing in the overlooked files, including interview transcripts, photos, and letters, that would throw McVeigh's guilt into question. Still, Attorney General John Ashcroft is due to hold a news conference in just a few minutes in which he's expected to announce a postponement of the convict's death.

What we still don't know is the reaction to this sudden turn of events from McVeigh, who months ago abandoned any further appeals. We do know McVeigh's co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, will now appeal his conviction to the highest court in the land.

CNN is tracking this story from every angle today. Let's begin at the White House with CNN's Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, we can confirm, according to senior government official, that when Attorney General John Ashcroft comes out moment from now, he will recommend a delay in the execution of Timothy McVeigh. This official, though, could not confirm if the attorney general would be recommending a 30-day delay, but just to confirm that he would be seeking a delay. That's really what we've only been able to confirm.

The White House itself has not been saying very much right now, just saying that it learned of these newly discovered documents relating to this case on Wednesday. We still are not 100 percent aware on exactly when President Bush himself become aware of this development. He chose not to, the president, answer questions when he was asked about this earlier.

We do know, though, when the president was informed about this, he didn't express, according to Ari Fleischer, his spokesman, concern about the process. Now, Fleischer would not elaborate and would not say any more. The message from the White House has been that the FBI and the Justice Department are gathering the facts. The White House will wait for those agencies to gather the facts before it comments anymore.

So that's the latest from here. We have, though, been able to confirm a senior government official, the attorney general, likely to recommend a delay in the execution scheduled for Wednesday of Timothy McVeigh, Natalie.

ALLEN: Kelly Wallace, we thank you. And, again, we expect the news conference with John Ashcroft to begin in probably just less than 10 minutes.

Let's go now to our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena, who is following this story from Washington -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, we do expect to hear from the attorney general in about five minutes. And as you heard from Kelly Wallace, we do expect him to announce a delay in the execution.

The thinking here about the 30 days is that that would be a very good amount of time for his defense attorneys to go through the 3,000 pages of new evidence that was just recently recovered. And you must understand that the Department of Justice does have unilateral jurisdiction to make that decision.

It sets the execution dates. It set the execution date for this Wednesday. And it has the prerogative to change that date without going through the court if it so chooses. It does seem that, yes, indeed is what's going to happen.

We're also expecting to hear from the FBI, from the Dallas office of the FBI. An agent there was the last director of the Oklahoma City task force. And he is expected to perhaps shed some light on exactly why these documents were never turned over to defense attorneys during the discovery phase of this trial, Natalie.

ALLEN: What could happen in this period that we expect the delay to be at least a month? What's the procedure? What happens?

ARENA: Well, the Justice Department says we delay the date of execution. And during that time, the defense attorneys and the judge also, who heard the case back in 1997, can go through the documents to see if there's any legal action that they would like to take.

Legal experts have concluded that this is the only way really for justice to go to -- basically to preserve the integrity of this process. These were documents that rightfully should have been handed over to the defense. So in the interest of preserving the integrity of this process, to do what is right to make sure that there is absolutely no question as to McVeigh's guilt, the Justice Department has decided to go ahead and delay it.

Now, I will tell you that law enforcement sources that I have spoken to, and of course we have heard from the Justice Department as well on this, that the information included in those documents does not in any way, at least according to them, contradict McVeigh's guilt, his repeated claims that he was, in fact, the person who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.

So even though this is not an admission, this is not an admission that there could be a problem with that guilty verdict, this is just, we are told, a maneuver to make sure that there is absolutely no question, that everything was done by the book, even though there was this oversight, which was just recently revealed, Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Kelli Arena standing by at the Justice Department. Again, we wait for John Ashcroft to step in and speak before that podium and make the announcement.

Right now for more, let's go over to Stephen.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Natalie, let's turn now to Greta Van Susteren, who has spent part of the day talking with defense attorneys, including Michael Tigar, who represented Terry Nichols at one stage during his trial, who seemed rather to be outraged at the fact that this development, although you hear both people, including Prosecutor Ryan, who actually made this case happen, say that the FBI didn't withhold this information just from the defense. Prosecutors never knew about it either. It was just lost and hidden away.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Stephen, at this point we simply don't know what happened. The truth is that lots of time prosecutors or FBI overlook loose documents. And sometimes there is history where they've been deliberate. The investigation is ongoing.

But I think the important thing to point out here is that this is important for the Justice Department, not just in terms of guilt versus non-guilt. And the Justice Department says it has nothing to do with his guilt. But the question the defense lawyers also have is whether or not whether or not the penalty, the death penalty would have been imposed by the court upon Timothy McVeigh had they had the information contained in these documents.

So actually, it's a two-prong inquiry investigation from the defense perspective. One, if it had a bearing on guilt, and two whether it would have had a bearing on the penalty actually set by the jury and the court. So it could be of a far greater significance than the Justice Department wants to at least admit publicly at this point.

Bottom line is nobody knows what happened to those documents for sure. Why didn't they get there? And number two, bottom line is nobody knows what's in those documents.

But the important thing is do not accept the interpretation by one side, so far the prosecution. We need to hear what the defense has to say. The defense attorneys and prosecutors look at documents very differently. And what may be irrelevant to the prosecution may turn out to be very powerful to the defense. FRAZIER: Indeed, Greta. But let me ask one more question about the bottom, bottom line. What would have precedence legally? Would supersede all of this? If the wishes of Timothy McVeigh are to declare that he in fact is responsible for this bombing and the fact that he would like to end his life and he'd like to face execution at what date is now set for him, would that trump any of what's found in the documents?

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, well, there's even another subcategory to that because you've got the dilemma facing the death penalty attorney. Look, if this weren't a death case, it would be relatively simple. Lawyers generally follow directions of their clients.

In death penalty litigation, there's sort of diversion of philosophy of how you represent a client. There are those lawyers who say you go with a client no matter what. And if Timothy McVeigh wants to die, you go forward with that, let him die, forget fighting this, forget the records. There's another set of defense attorneys in death penalty litigation, which say the goal is to keep the client alive. And you actually fight with the client to keep him alive and you get him to fight the case. And you have these huge battles oftentimes fought out in the attorney-client visiting room at the facility where the person is held.

But right now, we don't know what Timothy McVeigh wants to do. And even if makes a decision he wants to die, it's not clear whether his lawyers are going to try to depart from that anyway and fight it or whether they will go with his wishes. So nothing is known now.

FRAZIER: Indeed. Well, you're describing some fascinating scenarios, Greta. Thanks for joining us this afternoon -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Well, the date may be changing. But the place where Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to die is the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. And that's where McVeigh has been conferring with his lawyers over what could be a window of opportunity. And that's where CNN's Keith Oppenheim has been watching and waiting. Keith, what is happening there?

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, if there's a contrast between the reports that have preceded mine, it's that we have a pretty good idea of what Attorney General John Ashcroft will be announcing shortly. And we don't have a pretty good idea of how Timothy McVeigh is going to react to it here at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

He's meeting with a couple of attorneys today. The Bureau of Prison officials have been pretty skittish to give us any details about exactly when they are meeting. But we know that that is going to take place.

One of his attorneys is from Denver, Nick Chambers, the other from Tulsa, Oklahoma Robert Nigh. And we are hoping to confer with those attorneys at some point today to get a sense of what Timothy McVeigh's wishes are. But, as Greta Van Susteren was pointing out, the feelings of Timothy McVeigh are only a factor in terms of what the Justice Department will decide. They are in a unilateral position to decide when this execution is scheduled to take place.

I should add that as of this moment as I speak, Bureau of Prison officials say that they are continuing with plans for a Wednesday morning execution. And there has been no order that we know of at this moment for them to change anything that they are doing. Back to you.

ALLEN: So there hasn't been any statement from Timothy McVeigh or his lawyers yet reacting to this news?

OPPENHEIM: Not yet. And, again, they are probably watching television. We understand that Timothy McVeigh has pretty well unlimited access to television. So I'm sure he is going to be watching that announcement as it comes down. The question is, what does he want to say that would become a factor in the Justice Department's decision as to what to do about a delay?

ALLEN: All right, he will be meeting with his lawyers. And we'll stay in contact with you. Thanks, Keith Oppenheim.

McVeigh was tried, convicted, and sentenced in Denver. And shockwaves are still being felt there through the federal courthouse. CNN's Susan Candiotti tells us what's going on. She's with us now -- Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie. Well, originally, the thought was that something might be filed at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals here if either party decided to ask for a stay of execution here. But it appears as though this would be the one locale, where if Timothy McVeigh decided to file an appeal, where that would happen.

As we now know, it appears as if the Justice Department is leaning in the direction of pushing back Timothy McVeigh's execution date from next Wednesday for about a month or so. Now, all of this is an admittedly embarrassing situation for the FBI because it was less than 24 hours ago that it publicly disclosed that it had discovered that documents, more than 500 including 3,000 pages of material, had never been turned over to Timothy McVeigh's defense team.

The FBI continues to insist that all of this material is redundant, that nothing will change Timothy McVeigh's guilt. And they point out that since Timothy McVeigh has said, has admitted, has confessed to the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI maintains this doesn't change anything.

Of course, defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh are not willing to accept the government's word of anything. The defense naturally wants to look over these documents to see if there is indeed anything it in which they can challenge Timothy McVeigh's conviction.

The results are said to be material dealing with Michael Fortier, who also Timothy McVeigh said had prior information of the bombing, and material that has to do with convicted co-conspirator Terry Nichols. So as we know now, Timothy McVeigh's lawyer meeting with him at the prison.

And as we also know, all of this may change if Timothy McVeigh in the end says he wants the execution to proceed. Then again, that might not happen if the Justice Department says it is going to ask for a delay in the execution, giving time for McVeigh's defense lawyers to look over all of this new information. Back to you, Natalie.

ALLEN: And, Susan, we think John Ashcroft is just one minute away from beginning. I want to ask you a follow-up question. You've reported on this story extensively and talked with his lawyers, the reporters who have interviewed him. What has been his statement -- Timothy McVeigh -- about why, if you can expand on this, why he wanted to die and avoid any further delays?

CANDIOTTI: Timothy McVeigh's lawyers have said consistently that McVeigh is a practical man, an intelligent young man. And that while he carried out the Oklahoma City bombing he says and is not sorry for what he did, they say McVeigh acknowledges that and realizes that he was going to lose his appeal since he said he lost all of them so far, and that McVeigh said he knew he wouldn't get anywhere by asking for clemency from President Bush.

His lawyer said that McVeigh didn't consider life worth living in an eight-by-12-foot cell every day and was prepared to die and accept the penalty that had been meted out to him, Natalie.

ALLEN: So, well, that said, that sounds like given up hope not seeing any. So this could be an element of hope for him. Stand by, Susan. Here comes John Ashcroft.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: Our system of justice requires basic fairness...


... and that we will by virtue of going even beyond the technical demands of the law to achieve justice that we will pursue the ends of justice so thoroughly that they can have confidence in the system. Thank you.

ALLEN: That's it from Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the delay of the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. It will be delayed one month from today, now setting his execution date at June 11.

We want to also let you know that the president is going to be making a statement on this story in just 30 minutes. 2:00 p.m. Eastern from the briefing room in the White House. And he will take questions as well.

Let's bring in our legal analyst Greta Van Susteren. Greta, the attorney general not directly answering the question, is your confidence in the bureau shaken? And doesn't seem to have the information yet of why these documents were delayed.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I'm actually not surprised at either answer. First of all, Natalie, whether his confidence is shaken. Look, he's relatively new on the job. It's a big organization, Justice and the FBI. And he doesn't know all the ins and outs of the organization.

This is certainly disturbing to him as what has happened, the belated document dump on the defense. As to not knowing how this happened, as an old defense attorney, it's unusual for me to be defending the Justice Department and the FBI. But I must tell you that in this particular case, there are literally tens of thousands of documents in this case. And while the FBI is obliged, required, to turn these over, and we as defense attorneys fight very hard for them because they can have very powerful information, sometimes showing someone as innocent, sometimes discrediting key witnesses, sometimes going to the issue of punishment.

So they are extremely important. The truth is that sometimes accidents do happen. And the attorney general says he is going to get the bottom of it. But it doesn't surprise me that at this particular moment he doesn't know what happened.

Now, could it be deliberate? That's always a possibility. But the prudent thing to do is let's wait until we have the facts. He's asked that the inspector general do an investigation. And hopefully, the investigation will be fair and thorough and will provide us the right answers.

But I'm not particularly surprised that the documents get overlooked. But it is extremely serious when documents are not provided to the defense. And I am sure that the defense team is not happy about it. But even madder is going to be that federal judge who tried that case.

ALLEN: All right, so even if Timothy McVeigh wants to still be executed next Wednesday, does he have the choice at this point?

VAN SUSTEREN: Probably not. I mean, I don't know how he would do it, unless he -- I mean, the people who were going to execute him say they're not going to do it. So I don't think anything is going to happen.

Now, look, the law is one of the most bizarre areas. And it's possible that the defense lawyers could turn around this afternoon and go into the court and ask the federal judge to order the Department of Justice to execute him on Wednesday. Do I think that's going to happen? No.

But there's so many twists and turns in all these cases, I do not think that the execution will go forward on June 11. If the -- what I suspect may happen, and I underline the word "suspect" -- but the defense attorneys will go through these documents and find something that's important to the issue, maybe not about guilt or innocence, but to whether or not he should have received the death penalty. Is there something important in there? They will be filing motions. And there will be court hearings. And that can't be done before June 11. And in the event that they lose court hearings, they're going to want to appeal it. So I think June 11, my guess, is unrealistic unless Timothy McVeigh says, "I've had it. Let's just do June 11."

ALLEN: And what of Terry Nichols?

VAN SUSTEREN: Very important. Terry Nichols, midnight was the expiration of the filing deadline. And Michael Tigar was on BURDEN OF PROOF today with me earlier. And he said they're going to file something in the Supreme Court by midnight tonight.

The reason that it's important to file by midnight tonight is because the standard of proof in the terms of the pleading they're filing is lower until midnight. Once midnight kicks over, they're put into a new category of post-conviction court filings in which they have to prove so much more. They've got a looser standard until midnight. But they're rushing off to the United States Supreme Court today, Michael Tigar and the defense team, on behalf of Terry Nichols.

But they are appalled. They are disturbed. But Terry Nichols is lucky in the sense that this information was provided to his lawyers before he hit the deadline of midnight tonight.

ALLEN: And back to McVeigh for just a moment. You said you doubt this execution will take place June 11. How long perhaps could we see this go? Is it anyone's guess that the point since we do not know what's in these missing documents?

VAN SUSTEREN: Anyone's guess. But let me play fantasy lawyer for a second. If I am the defense attorney, I am going to keep my client alive. And I have just found out that the Department of Justice and the FBI has withheld 3,000 documents. I am going to take my time going through those documents.

I'm going to comb every single word looking for something because defense lawyers don't give up. They're like a dog on a bone. They're going to fight to try to keep their client alive. And they're going to take advantage of every right that's available to them.

And you heard about the attorney general talk about the rule of law. The defense attorneys are going to take that rule of law, and they're going to do what they can aggressively. And the constitution obliges them do that, to work aggressively for their client. That could drag it out for a long time because, what has happened? The prosecution, the Justice Department, has thrown a wrench into the works. And the defendant, Timothy McVeigh, is allowed to take full advantage of our judicial systems with all of its checks and balances to make sure this is done fairly.

So this could drag on in theory a long time. So it's anyone's guess. June 11, maybe it will happen. But I've got to tell you that if I were the defense lawyer in this case and I had a client that was willing, I would fight this very hard in the event there's something in those documents that goes to either penalty or guilt or innocence. But I'd probably be looking more for the issue of penalty and try to save his neck.

ALLEN: Greta Van Susteren, Greta, we thank you. And again, the announcement just now from the federal government is the execution of Timothy McVeigh set for next Wednesday has been postponed for one month from today, now set at June 11. We'll have more on this ahead.

Again, the president is holding a regularly scheduled news conference at 2:00 Eastern. We're now told it's not just about McVeigh, but he will likely get a question on that. So we'll hear his comments in just less than 30 minutes from now.

Quick break. We'll be back.


FRAZIER: If you were watching us closely as we were as Attorney General John Ashcroft made those remarks just a few moments ago, you noticed that he did not respond directly when pressed and pressed repeatedly by one reporter who wanted to know how it was that this all happened. He did not know the reason, as he called it, for the belated delivery of these documents to the defense team representing Timothy McVeigh in the trial of the federal building.

We now know that the FBI will release information about how this all happened, and for that, let's turn to Kelli Arena at the Justice Department who can give us some sense of how it is they've made that clear to us -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stephen, we got a statement from the special agent-in-charge, Danny Defenbaugh from the Dallas field office of the FBI. He happens to be the last person who directed the Oklahoma City task force for the FBI. He -- they released a statement today. Unfortunately, this statement only talks about the process, but not exactly the problem and why these -- these documents were never turned over.

They do say, in their defense, that the investigation produced millions of records -- including 23,290 pieces of evidence, over 238,000 photographs, so on -- said that on numerous occasions, starting in the fall of 1995, they sought and obtained numerous assurances from FBI field offices and legal attaches that searches for documents had taken place and documents were forwarded.

They said that in December of 2000 the FBI initiated a procedure to make sure that all of the documents relating to the Oklahoma City bombing investigation were appropriately archived. And it was during that process of due diligence that they found out that 3,000 pages, more than 500 documents, were not turned over to defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh.

The FBI is working closely with prosecutors to carefully review each item, and as you heard earlier, Attorney General John Ashcroft has assigned the inspector general to do a thorough and careful review of exactly what went wrong. So we do have, at least, some defense from the FBI saying, hey, look, we tried to do this right, we had -- there were millions of documents. We asked everybody to make sure that they were forwarding these documents.

The attorney general pointed out in his press conference that the Justice Department and prosecutors went beyond the requirement, the usual requirements. These types of documents that were uncovered don't usually have to be turned over to defense attorneys in a usual -- in a usual case in the discovery process.

But the -- the government did agree to go beyond requirements, and so it was in the spirit of that agreement that these -- these documents needed to be turned over. But as you said, he refused to comment on whether or not he's lost confidence.

The FBI, of course, very, very bad day for them. I spoke to several agents today and this really was not the way that they wanted this to play out -- the first federal execution in 38 years. They felt that they had done a good job on the investigation, that they had established guilt. And I must say that despite the fact that the attorney general has issued a delay through June 11, for the execution, he still contends that the review that was done by Justice Department lawyers -- and I have heard this also from law enforcement sources -- there is nothing in these documents that suggest that Timothy McVeigh is not guilty, nothing that contradicts prior evidence that has already been handed over to defense attorneys -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Two questions, Kelli: One, let's just do a bit of housekeeping. These documents, if I understand correctly, are mostly transcriptions of interviews the FBI conducted in the course of its investigation?

ARENA: That's right. Soon after the bombing, FBI agents went out --some of are even handwritten. There are some tapes: audiotapes, videotapes that were done -- all interviews, some of them, we are told, surrounding the possibility of another player involved, but these were things that were never transcribed, never sent from those initial offices over to the task force that was supposed to be the collection center for all of the notes and interviews and anything that was done relating to the trial.

FRAZIER: So then, that leads me to another -- I'm going to end up with three questions here -- is some of this evidence in electronic form? Is it still on tape, needing to be typed out and transcribed?

ARENA: That's our understanding, is that it does need to be transcribed, that this was never entered into the computer system, which is why it wasn't known about until now. It was when they were manually going through all of the documents, making sure that everything was properly archived, when they came across this assortment of documents.

FRAZIER: Indeed. Now, is it your sense from your sources there that this kind of archiving was intended to be completed before the execution, so that everything was lined up and completed before the irreparable, irremediable event of an execution? You heard one question in the news conference there, you know, what if you found this -- not six days before, but six days later? ARENA: From everything that I have heard, Stephen, I really believe that they thought everything was in order. This was just a housekeeping project. This was initiated at the end of the last year in December. I really -- there is not one thing that I have heard today that suggested to me that they wanted to have this done before the execution.

They really didn't think that they were going to find anything that they didn't already have. This was just a -- merely, let's get it all together and get it in one place. So, I do not believe that there was -- -- that there was a deadline. Unfortunately, you know, the timing could have not been worse for the FBI.

FRAZIER: A lot of details in there, thank you very much. At the Justice Department, Kelli Arena. Kelli, thanks.

ARENA: You are welcome.

ALLEN: Again, Timothy McVeigh was tried and convicted at the federal courthouse in Denver, Colorado. That is where we find CNN's Susan Candiotti, and will this period now, Susan, involve this courthouse and Judge Matsch yet again?

CANDIOTTI: It seems unclear at this stage, Natalie, where this courthouse would be involved, could this go before the trial Judge Richard Matsch, whose courthouse is here, or before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals here in Denver. All that remains to be seen.

We can tell you that one of Timothy McVeigh's two lead defense attorneys, appeals attorneys, Nathan Chambers is based here in Denver. And he has said that regardless of the Justice Department's position, that he finds the situation, in his words, "very troubling indeed." That they want to complete a full review of these documents, and at this hour, Rob Nigh, one of McVeigh's other lawyers, is meeting with the client at the prison on death row in Terra Haute.

I can also tell you that not long ago, I spoke with Bill McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh's father, who -- and he lives in western New York. I asked him about this whole affair, and he said: "I really don't know what to think." He said: "After all, my son has admitted to the bombing." And what happens next? He said: "Well, it all depends on what Tim wants."

The last time Bill McVeigh saw his son was back on April 10 when he and his daughter Jennifer had a face-to-face visit with Timothy McVeigh in that prison. They met with glass between them. Bill McVeigh asked his son whether he would apologize for the bombing, and according to the father, Timothy McVeigh said: "If I said I was sorry, I would make a lot of people happy, but I'd be lying." Back to you, Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Susan Candiotti in Denver. In just a moment, we'll take a live to Oklahoma City and get reaction from many family members who were associated with this bombing and find out what they think about this delay in this saga. Message to our international viewers who have been watching us: you will continue to watch CNN International after this break, and you will see the president speak at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll cover the news conference for everyone live. We'll take a break. We'll be back.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I believe the attorney general has a more important duty than the prosecution of any single case, as painful as that may be to our nation. It is my responsibility to remote the sanctity of the rule of law and justice. It is my responsibility and duty to protect the integrity of our system of justice.

Therefore, I have made a decision to postpone the execution of Timothy McVeigh for one months from this day.



ALLEN: We're just about 10 minutes away from hearing from President Bush, who, we are told, will be making a statement on taxes. However, will be taking questions, so we expect this delay in execution to come up during that time, and we will be taking you live to Oklahoma City in a moment.

But first, we want to go to Washington and Jeanne Meserve who has more about this story -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, we are going to look at some of the legal and other issues involved in this decision with our senior Washington correspondent Charles Bierbauer.

Charles, in this news conference, we've heard the attorney general talk about the integrity of the system and the sanctity of the rule of law. Politically, practically, putting aside the legal arguments, did he have much of a choice? Did he have to delay this execution?

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Probably not on the political side. He made a couple of statements. He said this is a case where I believe we are going beyond the requirements of the law, and then said the Department of Justice is confident that the documents do not create a reasonable doubt about McVeigh's guilt nor contradict his admission.

In other words, in Attorney General Ashcroft's view, nothing has changed with regard to the case itself, but the broader question that he re-emphasized time and time again, people need to believe in the system. The system has already been tainted by the FBI's failure to turn over these documents, and FBI is a law enforcement agency that has repeatedly tainted itself.

So what the attorney general is saying, is we want people to believe that you can get a fair trial, that things will not be withheld, and if they are withheld, we are going to make sure that every opportunity is given to the defense attorneys, even though we don't think it is going to make a difference here.

MESERVE: This an extraordinary development in an extraordinary case. Put it in some context for us.

BIERBAUER: Well, we have not had a federal execution since 1963. Yes, there are lots of executions that have taken place across this country, but those were all taking place under state laws, where indeed most of your crimes that deserve the death penalty, which are essentially murder crimes, take place, not under federal law.

We have not had any even reprieve of this sort in decades, because of course there were not executions at the federal level. This is extraordinary. Attorneys I have talked to say they cannot recall a situation such as this where so much material was withheld and then discovered late in the game, nor can they find any precedent within the law, so they have got to be careful. And I think you are absolutely correct, they've got to be politically careful about how this looks.

MESERVE: Thirty-day delay, what happens in that 30-day period?

BIERBAUER: Well, in that 30-day period, the most significant thing is that the attorneys for Timothy McVeigh will take a look at what is there. They are meeting with McVeigh today, as I understand it, trying to gauge what his sense is at this point.

We do not know -- we have not heard a word to indicate whether he wants to even appeal this, or whether there is an appealable basis. There obviously is for just not having handed these documents over, but a court may say it doesn't matter.

MESERVE: And you discovered earlier this has already had an impact on the Nichols case.

BIERBAUER: Terry Nichols has had a significant impact, because the Nichols case is very much based on the notion that there was another player, a John Doe II, John Do3 No. 2, whom we've never seen except by virtue of a sketch. And his attorneys tell us that they will file, by midnight tonight, with the U.S. Supreme Court a refiling of an appeal which was denied by the Supreme Court last month.

MESERVE: Charles Bierbauer, senior Washington correspondent, thanks so much.



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