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Published: Wednesday, 4/13/2005

One more domestic terrorist

ERIC Robert Rudolph, an accomplished hater, serial bomber, urban terrorist, and killer, deserved the death penalty he won't get for his malicious crimes.

The 38-year-old North Carolinian stood accused of setting off bombs in 1996 that killed one woman and injured hundreds at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the Olympics, injuring 50 people the following year at an abortion clinic in an Atlanta suburb, and hurting five more in a third bombing at a gay nightclub.

And in 1998 his remotely detonated explosives killed an off-duty police officer working security at a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic. This event put investigators on his trail, thanks to an eyewitness who got the license number of his truck.

But the coward who wreaked death on the innocent in the name of godly righteousness, rather than risk his own life, agreed on the eve of a trial to a plea bargain that carries a punishment of life in prison without parole. His conviction will end years of public uncertainty and finally clear the name of the man originally targeted by the FBI, Richard Jewell.

Rudolph's decision to confess was a bit of a surprise. After all, he had refused to speak to federal authorities after his arrest, and as one observer noted, he seemed unlikely to "ever give the federal government the satisfaction of saying they were right."

The deal was not one-sided. Prosecutors weren't sure they could get a death penalty verdict. They couldn't prove that the voice on a 911 warning call made before the Olympic bombing is Rudolph's. They did link him to letters sent after the other bombings.

A tacit, but unworthy, consideration may have been concern about creating a martyr for the white supremacists and like-minded anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-abortion terrorists who supported his deadly deeds, and perhaps helped hide him during his 5 1/2 years as a fugitive. These people would have insisted, facts aside, that Rudolph had been set up. His confessions cut them off.

The plea deal will also avoid huge expenditures for trials in two states and years of appeals. Prosecutors would surely have had to deal with their early gaffes, among them the FBI's hounding and persecution of security guard Richard Jewell after wrongly targeting him as a prime suspect in the Olympic bombing case. The defense planned to make much of that at any trial, and they might have infected jurors' minds with reasonable doubt.

Prosecutors wanted and got something quite specific from this dangerous criminal in exchange for his plea - the location of his stash of explosives, material that was susceptible to misuse or to hurting anyone who stumbled across it. Rudolph has already led authorities to four large deposits of dynamite, 250 pounds in all, some of it hidden close to inhabited areas.

Richard Jewell's lawyer, Lin Wood, says that the time has come to recognize his client for the hero he was, and the lives he saved in 1996, at Centennial Park. He's right about that.

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