Eyewitness blues

Tough assignment for news pros chosen to watch McVeigh execution
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WLS-AM's Susan Carlson trembled when she learned that, in a few hours, she would be watching a man die and then tell the world about it.

The Chicago radio reporter hardly expected to be among a handful of media witnesses chosen by lottery when she drove to Terre Haute, Ind., to report on the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh last week.

For her, the experience was frightening throughout. After being searched, she was transported to the death house and brought into the small chamber, where, with only a couple of feet and a window between the witnesses and the condemned man, McVeigh made extensive eye contact with each of them. "I thought I would feel sympathy for him," she says. "But when I looked into his eyes, my instinctive reaction was fear. I was scared of the man in front of me."

Even later that night, alone in a Terre Haute hotel room after a whirlwind day providing accounts of McVeigh's death for a worldwide journalists' pool, she remained anxious and, despite her exhaustion, had trouble sleeping. "I replayed the execution in my mind over and over. I left the light on, and the TV."

For the four broadcast and cable newspeople who served as witnesses to the execution, their role in the historic event called on them to confront not only fear but also their sense of justice, professionalism, family and even faith.

"I was determined not to be caught up in my own emotions," said CBS correspondent Byron Pitts, who brought first word to the world that "Timothy James McVeigh died with his eyes open." Although most of the media witnesses were selected only a few hours before the execution, the TV networks had conducted their own drawing two days before, in which Pitts and Fox News' Shepard Smith were selected.

Ten years from now, Pitts said, "that's what I'll remember." He says he kept his own eyes on McVeigh's, "trying to determine when he passed from life to death."

It was not "a time for me to come out and give my personal views," said Fox's Smith. "I have a lot of have feelings, about it—deep and powerful feelings. But you find a place for those emotions when you're a journalist."

KFOR-TV Oklahoma City reporter Linda Cavanaugh "thought I was handling it with little or no emotion, until the warden said, 'The execution may proceed.' I felt my body might betray me. My heart started racing, and my notes became illegible.

"There are many stories I don't look forward to," she continues, "but someone had to do it, And I feel a responsibility to the people of Oklahoma City." One of them, an Indian elder, had offered her a prayer ceremony. He was concerned, she says, "that this would affect my spiritual well-being."

News last week of a CBS miniseries about Timothy McVeigh is not likely to go over well in Oklahoma City, she adds. Days after the execution, CBS announced the project, based on the book, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing—purportedly drawn from taped interviews conducted with McVeigh and his family. "I think that this city has had enough."

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