Tags: Federal | Authorities | Have | Sad | Record | Blunders

Federal Authorities Have Sad Record of Blunders

Monday, 14 May 2001 12:00 AM

After his arraignment in January of that year on weapons charges, an Idaho survivalist, Randy Weaver, received a letter from the U.S. Probation Office stating that he would be tried March 20. The letter was in error. But when Weaver failed to appear Feb. 20, the actual date of his trial, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

From this obscure beginning, there has been a hideous unraveling.

The botched trial date led directly to the shooting deaths of Weaver's wife and son and a U.S. deputy marshal, in a bungled standoff at Weaver's Ruby Ridge cabin the next year. Ruby Ridge came to be seen by many Americans, including McVeigh, as the precursor to the far bloodier foul-up at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco a year later, which resulted in the deaths of about 80 people.

McVeigh, as he has acknowledged since his conviction, drove the truck bomb that caused the bloodiest act of terrorism in U.S. history --- 168 dead, bringing the total in this tragic cycle to about 251 --- on the second anniversary of the Waco firestorm. He was arrested almost immediately, not by any feat of federal investigation but in a routine tag check by an Oklahoma cop.

Considering the lives that have been lost through the government's undue haste, it would be hard to fault Ashcroft for delaying McVeigh's execution a month after the revelation that the FBI failed to provide his defense with thousands of pages of documents from the Oklahoma City investigation. But the FBI's error and Ashcroft's decision do have potential consequences.

The oversight could affect the convictions of Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. Because part of the undisclosed material deals with the shadowy John Doe No. 2 --- described by witnesses at the office where the truck was rented but missing from the government's case against McVeigh --- its release will be a field day for conspiracy theorists.

And even if McVeigh doesn't change his mind and use the new evidence to try to overturn his sentence, Ashcroft's decision raises an interesting question for future capital cases. If a month's postponement is granted in the case of someone who has admitted that he committed the crime, what about those who still protest their innocence and come forward with new evidence?

From the Justice Department's first account of them, the field notes, tapes, photos and interview transcripts discovered this week were a routine byproduct of the massive investigation that followed the Oklahoma City bombing. It was that familiar culprit, a computer glitch, that caused the material to be shunted aside.

If true, it is consistent with all the other routine foul-ups along this ghastly trail. Dates get mixed up. Computers misclassify. Government, alike with most large organizations, does more harm by accident than design. But the way it squares up to its mistakes is critically important.

After Ruby Ridge, a Justice Department investigation concluded the government had been "unnecessarily rigid in its approach," which has become progressively more of an understatement. Whatever comes of the decision to grant McVeigh another month of life, it at least avoided the error that started this all.

Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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After his arraignment in January of that year on weapons charges, an Idaho survivalist, Randy Weaver, received a letter from the U.S. Probation Office stating that he would be tried March 20. The letter was in error. But when Weaver failed to appear Feb. 20, the actual date...
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2001-00-14
Monday, 14 May 2001 12:00 AM
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