McVeigh 'lynching'? Look at the dictionary, judge

Someone needs to tell Judge Richard P. Matsch exactly what a lynching is. The man hasn't a scintilla of a clue. Those fancy law books filled with lawyerese and other assorted gobbledygook don't seem to have helped him any.

Matsch is the judge presiding over Timothy McVeigh's trial in Denver. After McVeigh was convicted of murder in the deaths resulting from the explosion that devastated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, the trial moved into what is called the penalty phase.


Such is the difference between America today and the America of old. In the America of old, McVeigh is hanged by now, soon after the verdict. None of this "penalty phase" business. None of this parading relatives of victims before a jury to say what should be obvious to everybody: that blowing up a building and killing 168 people is a despicable act worthy of the death penalty.

No. In today's America we have Matsch uttering, in all seriousness, "A penalty-phase hearing cannot be turned into some kind of lynching."


Oh? Exactly how many kinds of lynching are there? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, there's only one. The writers of the dictionary chose to keep the language simple and defined the verb "to lynch" thusly:

"To execute without due process of law, especially to hang, as by a mob."

Pay close attention to that phrase "without due process of law," which Matsch seems to have missed. He's also missed what is obvious: that McVeigh has had his due process of law. Implying that McVeigh is a lynching victim insults the many victims of the practice. They're probably turning over in their graves, those of them who have graves.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas also had his problems with what lynching is. During the 1991 Senate hearings into that nasty Anita Hill business, Thomas accused liberal senators of subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching," indicating that the good justice -- a black man from Georgia who should know better -- hasn't a clue as to what a lynching is either. Thomas had his "day in court" as well. He was able to testify on his own behalf and have witnesses who testified for him.

So that we're all attuned to our shameful and grisly history here, I should note that lynch victims seldom got such opportunities. It was Capt. William Lynch of Pittsylvania County, Va., who in September of 1780 openly espoused the doctrine of punishing lawbreakers without trial. Lynch's legacy to America is that the practice eventually took on his name and became more gruesome in some states than others.

The worst, even by Southern standards, was Mississippi. And the first victims were not black, as you might surmise, but white men. Think of lynching as a "male on male" crime. Historian David M. Oshinsky, writing of Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison farm -- another shameful and notorious chapter in the nation's history -- depicted the state as a place of rampant barbarism. State legislators gouged out each other's eyes. A British visitor "was amazed at the speed with which chance encounters and trivial slights escalated into grisly homicides. Even dinner conversations in Mississippi, [the Englishman] wrote, had a 'smack of manslaughter about them.' "

During their especially ornery moods, Mississippians took to lynching.

"In 1835," Oshinsky writes, "a 'tumultuous mob' dragged six 'captured and crestfallen gamblers' to a makeshift gallows in Vicksburg. " 'It was the next morning,' a witness reported, 'before their bodies were cut down and buried together in a ditch.' " In 1837, an obscure lawyer named Abraham Lincoln charged that " 'dead men [are] literally hanging from the boughs of trees by every roadside' in Mississippi."


After the slaves were freed, the color of lynching victims changed from white to black. Among them were Emmett Till in 1955 -- beaten to death for ogling a white woman without a license -- and Charles Mack Parker, dragged from his prison cell in 1959 and murdered. Neither Till nor Parker benefited from that due process thing.

Their ghosts might well be hovering over a federal courthouse in Denver, wondering in what sense Timothy McVeigh is being "subjected to some kind of lynching."

Pub Date: 6/08/97