Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for detonating a bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995, was charged with 11 felony counts that included use of a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of first-degree murder — but not terrorism.
So what’s the difference?
Matthew Lippmann, who is a professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said the United States only recently began charging people with terrorism.
“What we’re looking at are conventional crimes, but they’re prosecuted under a particular statute that allows the government to prosecute them much more harshly,” he said.
Chapter 113B of Title 18 of the United States Code addresses federal crimes that are considered terrorism, which include use of weapons of mass destruction and the bombing of public places, as well as providing support to terrorists.
The Administrative Office of the United States Courts identifies a crime as terrorism if the defendant is charged with at least one of the terrorism offenses in the code, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Using this definition, more than 300 people were prosecuted for terrorism in federal court from FY 2004 to April 2009.
Charles E. Tucker Jr., who is executive director of the International Human Rights Institute at DePaul University, said people can be charged under both state and federal law.
“Timothy McVeigh was prosecuted both under Oklahoma law and federal law,” Tucker said. “The issue was that there was some concern that he would not get the death penalty, so he was charged with separate counts under Oklahoma law.”
Lippmann said there are parallels to the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993, for which four men were convicted on charges that included explosive destruction of property and assault on a federal officer.
“They were definitely acts of terror, but they were conventional crimes that were undertaken with the additional intent of intimidating the United States,” he said.