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Best essays of 2017: Timothy McVeigh, my dad and me

Timothy McVeigh, my dad and me
I knew the bomber as “Tim,” my father’s death penalty client. 15 years after his execution, he haunts us still

We’re re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year’s best personal essays. Read all the entries in the series.

It was a sunny afternoon in 1995, a week after the Oklahoma City bombing, during the brief period that Dad knew Timothy McVeigh only as America’s most hated man, and nothing more.

A baby had been found buried in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after seven days, the media reported. Her last name was Coyne, like mine, and she was soiled in blood and soot and shit. She was 14 months old, five months my junior. Our mothers, who never met, both worked at courthouses in downtown Oklahoma City. I attended day care in Norman, the nearby college town where Dad taught at the law school. She was in the Murrah building’s nursery across the street from her mom’s office when McVeigh’s bomb went off. Any connection I shared with the dead little girl was, by all accounts, an unremarkable coincidence.

When Dad realized why the reporter simpering lukewarm condolences had called our house, he yanked our answering machine straight from the wall. The bastard had probably found our number in the white pages and mistaken our family for the little girl’s, Dad guessed. Or perhaps he’d simply called every Coyne in the book, for good measure. How callous, how cruel, turning tragedy into pity porn. Dad considered, for a moment, giving the reporter the sound bite he deserved, but as he thought of his own daughter, safe in the next room, a sick sadness overcame him. It didn’t matter anyway; the message cut off before the reporter gave his contact information.

One of Dad’s former law students from his capital punishment class, Jim Hankins, called three weeks after Dad reinstalled our answering machine. Now a bona fide member of the bar, Jim worked for a firm called Jones & Wyatt in Enid, Oklahoma. It was no secret the firm had a notorious new client, and the government wanted him dead. Dad, Oklahoma’s premier capital punishment scholar, could really help out, Jim said.

That’s how Dad became one of Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers. And that’s when Timothy McVeigh — the scrawny kid with blood vengeance and a buzz cut, the man who murdered Jaci Coyne — became Tim.

*  *  *

In total, Tim killed 169 people. Nineteen of them were children. The Oklahoma City bombing remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism to this day. It surprises me how many people my age don’t know that. I guess I can’t blame my peers; I don’t remember the bombing either.

My generation was the first to grow up under the threat of modern terror, taught to hide in bathroom stalls and crouch atop toilets so school shooters wouldn’t spy our sneakers. Our growth spurts and awkward phases have been documented in Transportation Security Administration-mandated full-body renderings.

The Oklahoma City bombing eludes me, though. I was 19 months old when the Alfred P. Murrah building exploded, 2 and a half years old when Tim’s trial began, 7 years old when he withdrew his appeal and accepted his death sentence, and nearly 8 years old when he died with his eyes wide open. By then I had grown into someone who could grapple with death. How could I miss that?

I was a senior in college, writing about how the Oklahoma City bombing affected my family for my thesis. As it happened, the piece was due on April 19, 2016, the tragedy’s 21st anniversary. It felt right, necessary even, to end my formal education learning this story and telling it in my own way. I have never worked harder than I did on this project.

My parents answered my questions with caution, but they did answer them. Together we stifled the obvious horror of it all — the blood, so much blood, children’s blood — and looked inward. Dad told me the case “fucked things up pretty good” for him. He apologized, too often, for a hell I don’t remember. I failed to convince him of my forgiveness. Mom warned me to not get lost in the depths that nearly swallowed him. I couldn’t resist.

Dad shared photographs and anecdotes as if Tim were a troubled friend he had lost touch with after adolescence.

If Dad remembers correctly, I spoke to Tim just once. I was maybe 6. I answered his collect call from the Terre Haute United States Penitentiary on Christmas morning. We talked about Santa Claus.

“How did he deal with that? Talking to a child when he killed so many?” I asked.

“I don’t think he ever did,” Dad said. “Whenever we talked about the 19 children in the day care center, a wall just went up. I don’t think he could allow himself to even think about it because it would have crushed him — the horror of what he’d done.”


Source: Salon, Marley Coyne, Jan. 1, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?