Wanted: but dead or alive?

The views of the victims' families will be instrumental in deciding the fate of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Revenge might be sweet, but does it help to heal? By Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Online
Today, the survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, along with the bereaved families, will be in court looking for blood. Following the conviction of Timothy McVeigh on Monday, they will be seeking the death penalty, giving evidence of the terrible effects the bombing has had upon them. The prosecution will show a heart-rending video of Baylee Almon's first and only birthday party. She became a symbol of the bombing after she was photographed cradled in the arms of a firefighter. She did not survive.

There is little doubt about the attitudes that these victims will strike. "I want the death penalty," says Aren Almon-Kok, Baylee's mother. "An eye for an eye. You don't take lives and get to keep your own." Stan Meyer was another victim, injured by 300 fragments of shrapnel. A 41-year-old civil servant who reviews grants for historical research, he opposed the death penalty until the killings in Oklahoma. Now he cannot think of any alternative, appropriate punishment for those who carried out the bombing. "None of these people should be alive and eating and breathing," Mr Mayer says.

There may be one or two dissenting voices. Some victims are worried, for example, that killing McVeigh will destroy the best chance of finding his co-conspirators. But the loudest voices will be for death. As Malcolm says in Macbeth: "Let us make medicine of our great revenge, to cure this deadly grief." Which judge or, indeed, president, would stand in their way? McVeigh seems sure to die, probably by lethal injection.

Meanwhile, other Westerners are showing their taste for vengeance. Frank Gilford, an Australian, may hold in his hands the fate of two British nurses, Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, accused of murdering his sister, Yvonne. Islamic principle allows the closest male relative to decide whether or not to grant clemency. So it is within Mr Gilford's right to call for the two to be beheaded, should they be convicted. Alternatively, his family could accept "blood money", which would be a minimum of pounds 10,000.

The mood, however, within the Gilford family is just as angry as that among the Oklahoma witnesses. "The killers should go through what my sister- in-law went through," Mr Gilford's wife has said. "They should start with their hearts and go through their lungs and their liver and their kidneys ... and then throw darts at these women."

The West may be the place where Christianity and its unique notion of "forgiveness" has greatest hold, but the appeal of retribution is increasing, not in the style of the vendetta involving whole families, but along the more limited Biblical lines of an "eye for an eye".

The shift in America began in 1982 with enactment of the Federal Victims and Witness Protection Act. That allows the presentation of Victim Impact Statements, of the type to be used in the McVeigh case, to be presented to the court before sentencing. All the federal courts now allow those statements, as do almost all the state courts.

Other western countries have not gone as far as the Americans, who have one of the most democratic and populist judicial systems - judges are elected and juries, in contrast to Britain, play an important role in determining sentences. If the jury decides McVeigh should be executed, the judge cannot overrule the decision.

However, a recent survey found that 17 mainly western countries are moving towards involving victims in the fate of those who offended. In Britain, six police areas are piloting a scheme that gives victims of burglary, assault and sexual offences the right to make statements in private to the court. They are not given to juries, but may influence bail application and the sentences that is handed down by the judge.

So does all this involvement help the victims? Evidence from America suggests that many do not want to become involved in punishing their assailants. A victim impact statement can be challenged by the defence over inaccuracies, requiring the victim to face the fresh trauma of cross-examination. A survey by the American Bar Association has found that only 10 per cent of victims get involved in sentencing, and only 3 per cent in California, the world centre of consumer power.

There is also a question about whether being there to - metaphorically speaking - stick the knife in the offender is good for a victim. "Normally, revenge gives you short-term release from some damage you have suffered," says Geoffrey Scobie, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow. "But sometimes, in retrospect, you start to feel bad about the pain you have caused someone else. You begin to feel guilty and it makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the damaging event." That dilemma is clearly bothering Frank Gilford, who has voiced reservations about sanctioning the death penalty for the two nurses on the grounds that he worries about imposing suffering on their families similar to what he himself has experienced.

That said, revenge can be purgative. Gitta Sereny, an expert on the Nazis' genocide of the Jews, opposes the death penalty. "I think it is wrong to take this sort of revenge." But she concedes: "I would say that some people have been helped or think they have been helped, by the extreme punishment of those who committed the murder of Jews."

It is unlikely that Britain will see victims given the power over sentencing that their American and Saudi contemporaries enjoy. Victim Support, the main lobbying group, opposes such a move on the grounds that it would put too much pressure on those who had already suffered. There are fears that giving them extra say would increase the arbitrary nature of sentencing - which already requires judges to balance the contradictory principles of deterrence, rehabilitation, denunciation and containment.

But the Saudi idea of "blood money" could catch on. Westerners talk about "restorative justice", the notion that an offender should try to compensate someone for the injuries done to them. But it can amount to the same thing. The two parties meet. The victim gets a chance to explain the hurt done, the offender has an opportunity to say sorry and make amends. In Minnesota, an official has been appointed to the prisons system to promote restorative justice.

Here, about 20 such schemes are operating. "Take, for example, the case of a burglar who was reported to have broken into a house in the summer," says Martin Wright of Mediation UK, which has pioneered schemes. "He found a woman sleeping in the nude because it was hot. He sexually assaulted her. She expressed her wish to meet him and tell him her feelings. All he could say in his defence was that he was not a pervert and had been under the influence of drugs. She got her feelings off her chest. He was still sent to jail, but at least he had the peace of mind from apologising. In this case, she did not ask for money, although she could have done."

It is not an outcome that is likely to take place in the case of Timothy McVeigh - the baying for blood is too great. Ironically, however, in Saudi Arabia, famed for its judicial barbarism, we might yet see an example of restorative justice. The judge in the case, fearful of seeming mediaeval in western eyes, has pleaded with Mr Gilford to show mercy. At the moment, he seems too hurt to do so. As Othello says on Cassio's death: "Murder's out of tune/ And sweet revenge grows harsh".