WASHINGTON – ASHCROFT: Our system of justice requires basic fairness, evenhandedness and dispassionate evaluation of the evidence and the facts. These fundamental requirements are essential to protecting the constitutional rights of every citizen and to sustaining public confidence in the administration of justice.
It is my responsibility as attorney general to promote and protect the integrity of our system of justice.
The ultimate sentence in the federal system of justice is the death penalty. The last death penalty imposed by the federal courts under the federal law occurred in 1963. The United States Congress and the president of the United States reinstated the death penalty by law in the 1980s and expanded capital sentencing in 1994 for 60 new and existing federal offenses, including the most violent and brutal crimes imaginable.
Before the death penalty can be imposed, a special hearing is required to determine whether a sentence of death is justified in the particular case. Following a conviction for a major crime eligible for the death penalty, a jury must determine whether the sentence of death is justified based on evidence and arguments presented by each side and instructions from the court.
ASHCROFT: On June the 2nd, 1997, a federal district court jury convicted Timothy McVeigh of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That bombing took place on April the 19th, 1995. His savage crime was the largest terrorist attack within the United States in our history, killing 168 innocent people, including 19 children, injuring hundreds more and shattering the lives of thousands of Americans.
On June the 13th, 1997, a jury recommended that Timothy McVeigh be sentenced to death for his crime. That sentence was imposed by a federal judge on August the 14th, 1997. McVeigh's convictions were affirmed on direct appeal and his post-conviction challenges have been rejected by the courts, including the United States Supreme Court. The Bureau of Prisons, which has been granted discretion by the district court over the imposition of the sentence, scheduled McVeigh's execution for May the 16th, 2001.
Yesterday, I was notified that documents in the McVeigh case, which should have been provided to his defense attorneys during the discovery phase of the trial, were not given to Justice Department prosecutors by the FBI.
ASHCROFT: In most criminal cases, these FBI documents would not be required to be given to defense counsel during the discovery process. However, in the McVeigh case, the government agreed to go beyond the documentation required between prosecution and defense teams.
While the FBI provided volumes of documents in this case, it is now clear that the FBI failed to comply fully with that discovery agreement that was reached in 1996. Today, I have asked the inspector general of the Justice Department to investigate fully the FBI's belated delivery of documents and other evidence created during this investigation.
When Justice Department prosecutors received the documents from the FBI, they notified the district court trial judge, Richard Matsch, and Timothy McVeigh's defense lawyers. These FBI documents were delivered to defense attorneys yesterday. The FBI is continuing to review its files to ensure full compliance with the court's discovery requirements.
Career attorneys at the Department of Justice are confident that these documents do not create any reasonable doubt about McVeigh's guilt, nor do they contradict his admission of guilt for the crime.
Over the past 24 hours, I have carefully considered the facts of this situation.
ASHCROFT: Timothy McVeigh, by his own admission, is guilty of an act of terrorism that stole life from 168 innocent Americans, and these documents do not contradict the jury's verdict in the case.
However, 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 promote the sanctity of the rule of law and justice. It is my responsibility and duty to protect the integrity or our system of justice.
Therefore, I have made a decision to postpone the execution of Timothy McVeigh for one month from this day, so that the execution would occur on June the 11th, 2001, in an effort to allow his attorneys ample and adequate time to review these documents and to take any action they might deem appropriate in that interval.
I know many Americans will question why the execution of someone who is clearly guilty of such a heinous crime should be delayed. I understand that victims and victims' family members await justice. But if any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice, diminishing its value and questioning its integrity.
ASHCROFT: For those victims and for our nation I want justice to be carried out fairly. And I want a criminal justice system that has the full faith and confidence of the American people.
I'd be pleased to answer a few questions at this time.
QUESTION: Have you talked to the FBI director about this and inquired how this could happen? And how much detail can you tell us about what went wrong?
ASHCROFT: I have directed the inspector general of the department to conduct a study of this belated delivery of documents. And I think that study, when conducted, will be the basis for understanding this case in the way that it needs to be understood.
QUESTION: But did the FBI tell you that this primarily a computer problem of some kind? You did talk to the FBI, I assume.
ASHCROFT: I have spoken with the director of the FBI, but I do not know the basis for the belated delivery, which I have asked to be investigated.
QUESTION: This is the latest in a series of problems at the FBI. Is your confidence in the bureau shaken?
ASHCROFT: Obviously, this proceeding is an important proceeding. And we were making progress toward carrying this out without the kind of disruption that this causes. I regret that these steps which I have taken are necessary, but I take them in the interest of the confidence the American people ought to have in their judicial system, and I believe that we are doing the right thing in this instance.
QUESTION: Mr. Ashcroft, I understand that you just found out about it in the last couple of days. Did the director tell you when he found out about the existence of these documents?
ASHCROFT: You would have to ask him about his awareness.
QUESTION: Can you tell us precisely how you found out about it and how the whole department found out about it? In other words, did anybody find out about it here before you did and when?
ASHCROFT: Obviously, the attorneys who handled the matter, I believe, were the first to know about it, and they provided the letter to the judge, Matsch. And that letter, I think, has been available to you, and you can, from that letter, ascertain the nature of the documents.
ASHCROFT: I didn't find out about that until subsequent to the time the letter was written, and obviously subsequent to the time when they had been informed.
QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, with all due respect, sir, how can you not know the basis for the reason for the delay in turning this over? This is the first federal execution in 38 years. What did you ask Mr. Freeh and what did he tell you? And my second question is, how do you know, given that there are thousands of documents and you just found out about this, that these documents are not relevant? How do you know that?
ASHCROFT: The trial attorneys and those attorneys that have handled the matter on appeal in the Justice Department have reviewed the documents, and that is the basis for my representation. I believe that the documents which have been turned over to the defense counsel and to the judge are available for their inspection, and that characterization will be borne out.
QUESTION: How can you not know the basis, though? Sir, I'm sorry. He didn't answer my first question. How do you not know the basis for the delay? How can you not know that?
ASHCROFT: I have instructed the inspector general of the department to determine the basis for the belated delivery, and I would prefer to learn it on the basis of a careful study. That's what the inspector general of the department is for.
QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, does the fact that these materials, these documents have come to light just six days prior to the scheduled execution, and might have come to light six days after the execution, raise any concerns in your mind about the finality of the death penalty?
ASHCROFT: No. This is a case where I believe that we are going beyond the requirements of the law. There is no doubt in my mind or in the minds of any individual about the guilt of Timothy McVeigh.
ASHCROFT: He has repeatedly asserted his own responsibility for these acts with a kind of detailed account which removes any doubt.
I have taken these steps in order to assure the American people that they have a right to have confidence in our processes 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.