McVeigh's final hours bring back ghost of the last federal execution

Andrew Buncombe
Sunday 10 June 2001 00:00 BST

Very few people remember Victor Feguer. For almost four decades his body has lain in an unmarked grave in a field close to a now-disused prison in Iowa.

But Feguer is a historical footnote whose relevance echoes down the years to the imminent execution of Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma bomber, who is due to die here tomorrow morning, will be the first person to be executed by the US federal government for 38 years. The last was Feguer.

"It was a trauma. It was an indentation in mind," Frederick White, Feguer's solicitor in 1963, told The Independent on Sunday, recalling his efforts to save his client. "I am against the death penalty and I was back then. In the long run it adds to the violence, and my God there is enough of that."

While McVeigh's progression to the death chamber has become the focus of a macabre media circus, Feguer's execution was carried out with little ceremony. The only reason the 27-year-old was a federal criminal was that when he kidnapped and then shot a young Iowa doctor, Edward Bartels, he took him across the state line into Illinois.

After being convicted, Feguer was hanged at Fort Madison prison, the US government paying the state of Iowa $28.75 for the cost of the hangman's rope. Witness reports said that as he climbed the 16 steps of the gallows, he was chewing gum to try and calm his nerves.

Feguer's last words, before the federal marshal pulled a wire that opened the gallows' trap-door, were: "I sure hope I'm the last one to go in Iowa. It would be too much to expect that I will be the last one anywhere. But I sure hope I am the last one in Iowa."

Mr White, now 73 and still working as a lawyer in Waterloo, Iowa, said: "I would say he was a little bit calm and a little frightened. He knew he was going to die. He knew it." McVeigh, too, has known for some time that he is going to die. Most likely he expected that last week's efforts by his legal team before a court in Denver, Colorado, would have bought him some more time. But once the court ruled against him McVeigh chose not to appeal to the US Supreme Court and instead to prepare for his execution. His lawyer, Rob Nigh, said he did not want the "uncertainty" in his final days.

By now, officials at the federal penitentiary here will have moved McVeigh from death row to a small windowless cell with a bed, toilet and metal table. In these final 24 hours he will be allowed to telephone only people approved by the warden.

Two hours before he is strapped into the brown, plastic dentist-type chair, there will be no more visits. A telephone line will be kept open in case the Justice Department or the White House issues a reprieve.

The effect of McVeigh's execution ­ six years after he bombed the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people ­ will be felt across the US.

Up to 300 survivors and relatives of the victims will watch the execution on a closed circuit television feed in Oklahoma City. They have said they believe it will bring "closure" to their suffering.

Others say the execution will do nothing to ease their pain. Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter, Julie, was among those killed, said: "As a society, when we do something, we must ask ourselves, 'What's the gain? How do we benefit?' And no one has ever told me how we benefit by taking a human out of a cage to kill him."

And there are others who will be affected, people for whom the pending execution has reignited grief and sorrow from almost 40 years ago. Bevlin Bartels was 16 when her father's cousin, Dr Bartels, was taken from the city of Dubuque and murdered by Feguer all those years ago.

"It was a terrible tragedy. It engulfed the city and the area," Ms Bartels, 59, an artist, said yesterday. "This has brought everything back again."

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