When my only daughter, Julie, was killed, I joined a "club" that I wish had no members. The price of admission is too high. I know the pain of losing a loved one because of a senseless act of violence.
Julie Marie was the light of my life. She was so bright, so kind, and so caring. She was my friend and confidante. After graduating from college, Julie worked as a Spanish interpreter for the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City. Every Wednesday, we met for lunch at a Greek restaurant across the street from the Murrah Federal Building. Our lunch date on Wednesday, April 19, 1995 was never to be.
Julie spoke five languages and used her abilities to help disadvantaged people. On the morning of the bombing, she had gone into the lobby to meet her clients. Julie always did things like that. If she had stayed in her office instead of meeting the clients in the lobby, she would have survived.
I'm the third oldest of eight children, raised on a dairy farm in central Oklahoma. I've run a gasoline service station for 35 years. All my life, I had always opposed the death penalty. I had often been told over a cup of coffee with friends who supported the death penalty that if something ever happened to one of my family members, I would change my mind--"What if Julie was raped and murdered?"
When Julie was killed that morning with 167 others in the bomb blast at the Murrah Building, the pain I felt was unbearable. I was also filled with rage. I wanted Timothy McVeigh executed. I could have done it with my bare hands. I didn't even want a trial. I just wanted him fried. I call it the "insanity period"--I went through five weeks of insanity. Now I know why people accused of committing horrible crimes are rushed from the car to the courthouse wearing bulletproof vests--because victims' family members are so crazed and angry that they would take the law into their own hands.
I remembered President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, while Julie's body was still missing, saying that they were going to seek and obtain the death penalty for the perpetrators. That sounded so wonderful to me at the time, because I had been crushed, and that was the big fix.
But I also remembered the time Julie and I were driving across Iowa during her junior year of college, listening to a newscast on the radio about an execution. Julie said, "Dad, what they're doing in Texas makes me sick. All they're doing is teaching hate to their children. It has no social redeeming value." I didn't think much about it at the time, but after Julie was killed, it kept echoing in my mind.
Nine months after the bombing, I was still stuck on April 19. I was drinking heavily and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. One cold January day, I went down to the bomb site. I sat under the old elm tree where Julie used to park her car. I asked myself, "Once they're tried and executed, what then? How's that going to help me? It isn't going to bring Julie back." I asked myself that question for two weeks. I finally realized that the death penalty was nothing more than revenge and hate. And revenge and hate are exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead.
A few weeks after the bombing I saw Bill McVeigh, Tim's father, on television. He was working in his flowerbed. The reporter asked him a question, and when he looked into the television camera for a few seconds, I saw a deep pain in a father's eyes that most people could not have recognized. I could, because I was living that pain. And I knew that some day I had to go tell that man that I truly cared about how he felt.
One Saturday morning two years later, I finally found myself in Bill McVeigh's driveway. I sat in the car, not knowing what I was going to be able to say. Then I went up and knocked. He came to the door, and I introduced myself. I said, "I understand that you have a large garden in your backyard," and that excited him. He said, "Oh, yeah, would you like to see it?" I said, "I'd love to."
So, we spent the first half-hour in that garden getting to know one another. Then we went into the house, and spent an hour visiting at the kitchen table. His 23-year-old daughter Jennifer was there. As I walked in I noticed a photograph of Tim above the mantelpiece. I kept looking at it as we were sitting at the table. I knew that I had to comment on it at some point, so finally I looked at it and said, "God, what a good-looking kid." Bill said, "That's Tim high school graduation picture." A big tear rolled out of his right eye, and at that moment I saw in a father's eyes a love for his son that was absolutely incredible.
After our visit I got up, and Jennifer came from the other end of the table and gave me a hug; we cried, and I held her face in my hands and told her, "Honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. And we can make the most of it if we choose. I don't want your brother to die. And I will do everything in my power to prevent it."
Driving back to Buffalo, I couldn't see through my glasses because I was still sobbing. When I got back I sat and sobbed and sobbed, and made a total ass out of myself for an hour. But I have never felt closer to God in my life than I did at that moment. It felt like a load had been taken completely off my shoulders. I wish I could make you understand the way it felt.
All of my family members opposed Tim McVeigh being executed. The last one to come aboard was my mother, who was 88. Mom was very angry at me for speaking out against the death penalty for Tim McVeigh, because she wanted him dead. Finally, she called me on the phone one day. She said, "Well, Bud, I hope it goes well for you. You're right about the death penalty. I guess I have enough of my anger gone now that I can believe that we shouldn't kill him."
I was speaking in Seattle recently. A lady told me she had always supported the death penalty. Her husband had been murdered in 1981, in Florida, and the murderer had killed other people, too. She had supported the death penalty right up until the execution of her husband's killer. Then, a week after the execution, she started to get this creepy feeling.
This woman told me that when the murderer was alive, she could take her rage out on him. But once he was dead, she had nowhere to release the rage. The prosecutor never told her that she might go through this mental and emotional crisis once the guy was executed. She told me that if she knew then what she knows now, she would have done everything she could to stop that execution. I have heard that many times. So the death penalty can actually prevent healing, rather than helping.
The day after Julie's burial someone asked me about "closure." I can't stand that word. Of course I was still in hell then. In a way, I still am. How can there ever be true closure? A part of my heart is gone. Julie's death still grips me every single day. But I no longer carry that horrible vengeance and rage because it would destroy me.
Of course, forgiving is not something you wake up one morning and decide to do. I still have these moments of rage, when I think, "What am I doing? That bastard didn't deserve to live."
You have to work thorough your anger and hatred as long as it's there. You try to live each day a little better than the one before.
There's been enough bloodshed. We don't need any more. To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn't really help anyone in the healing process. Of course, our first reaction is to strike back. But if we permit ourselves to think through our feelings, we might get to a different place.
--- by Bud Welch
[Bud Welch runs a service station in Oklahoma City, and travels around the country speaking about his daughter and the death penalty. He is on the Board of Directors of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. Reprinted from the Bruderhof Grief Companion. Used with permission.]