After a brisk trial in the case of the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing goes to the jury
Burdened by the mountain of evidence as well as their solemn task, the 12 men and women who hold Timothy McVeigh's life in their hands retired to the jury room last Friday for the most nerve-racking ritual of the criminal-justice system: determining the guilt or innocence of a high-profile criminal defendant on trial for his life. Hours passed and the jurors announced they were quitting for the night without reaching a verdict. At mid-evening, McVeigh called Stephen Jones, his chief defense lawyer, to ask Jones to come to his cell at Denver's federal courthouse. McVeigh had ""some legal questions he wanted addressed,'' Jones told Newsweek. Then, the lawyer said, ""we had a Coca-Cola and shot the breeze - reliving the last two years [and] speculating about what the jury might do.'' It wasn't, he said, a handholding session.
Still, it was white-knuckle time in Denver - and the tension on all sides, continuing through Saturday, underscored the enormous stakes in the OKBomb case. McVeigh's trial caps the worst act of terrorism (168 dead) ever to occur on U.S. soil and the biggest investigation since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It is life and death for McVeigh, who if convicted could be sentenced to die by lethal injection at the federal ""death house'' in Terre Haute, Ind. It is a climactic moment for victims and their families, many of whom watched the trial on closed-circuit television at a federal facility outside Oklahoma City. ""I spent a lot of time thinking about things to say so we can have a catch phrase for a day or two,'' survivor Martin Cash said. His entry: ""It ain't over 'til the slim guy swings.'' And whatever the outcome, the United States v. McVeigh may be the moment when the dented image of the American justice system begins to be restored. ""The quality of this trial has been extraordinary,'' said Ron Woods, one of the attorneys representing McVeigh's alleged accomplice, Terry Nichols. ""It's a pity it wasn't televised so people could have seen how a good judge and good lawyers can conduct a very important trial.''
Under the stern eye of U.S. district Judge Richard Matsch, the McVeigh case took only five weeks from opening to closing arguments. The absence of television in the courtroom - a controversial subject since the Simpson case - may have helped, though it is hard to imagine Matsch tolerating shenanigans by either side. To most observers, the hand-picked team of federal prosecutors overwhelmed McVeigh's defense with a presentation that was shrewdly streamlined to maintain juror interest - key bits of evidence like the receipt for fertilizer that bore McVeigh's fingerprint, coupled with testimony from those who lived through the event. Jones and his co-counsels, on the other hand, often seemed off-balance and, after spending millions of dollars pursuing shadowy co-conspirators, presented no alternate theory of the crime. Jones last week told reporters he and his staff had ""done everything we came to Denver to do,'' but most trial watchers saw it differently. ""The prosecution offered a very convincing case,'' said lawyer Andrew Cohen. ""I think this prosecution is probably going to be used as a model in years to come.''
The jury may disagree, of course. In his closing argument, Jones tried hard to plant the seeds of reasonable doubt by arguing that the government's case was almost entirely circumstantial: no witness, he said, saw McVeigh in the Ryder truck at the scene. He also said the prosecution was based on ""twin emotions, sympathy for the victims [and] repugnance'' for McVeigh's far-right political views. The defense also attacked the government's key witnesses, Michael and Lori Fortier, for changing their stories under the threat of prosecution, and hinted at the notion of a much broader right-wing conspiracy to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. ""The evidence demonstrates tragically that what law enforcement did was terribly, terribly wrong,'' said defense co-counsel Robert Nigh Jr. ""Instead of an objective investigation of the case, the federal law-enforcement officials involved decided the case and then jammed the evidence and witnesses'' to charge McVeigh and Nichols.
Summing up the government's case, prosecutor Larry Mackey said ""a wall of evidence'' showed that McVeigh himself rented the Ryder truck and that he obtained the fertilizer and racing fuel used to construct the bomb. He said testimony from the Fortiers and McVeigh's sister, Jennifer, showed that McVeigh discussed both his plan to build the bomb and his choice of target. He said McVeigh was ""fixated'' on ""The Turner Diaries,'' a racist and anti-Semitic piece of pulp fiction that describes a bomb attack on FBI headquarters, and that McVeigh acted from a desire to punish the Feds for the April 19, 1993, debacle at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. McVeigh, Mackey said, is ""a domestic terrorist.'' ""This is not a prosecution of Timothy McVeigh for his political views,'' he said. ""This is the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh for what he did . . . he committed murder.''
Meanwhile, both sides were preparing for the trial's penalty phase, which will start immediately if McVeigh is convicted. Prosecutors intend to bombard the jury with horrific testimony from victims and their families - particularly parents of the 19 children who died in the Murrah building's collapse. One exhibit they have considered is a videotape of Baylee Almon, the baby girl whose bloody body, cradled in the arms of an Oklahoma City firefighter, came to symbolize the nation's outrage. Prosecutors have a tape of Baylee's first (and last) birthday party the day before the bombing at the apartment where she lived. Held as evidence for more than a year, the tape is a guaranteed heartbreaker.
The defense strategy would include testimony from the two people who know Tim McVeigh best - his father, Bill, and his sister, Jennifer. Jennifer, who testified that McVeigh was planning ""something big'' during the trial's first phase, was a reluctant prosecution witness. Now she and her father may be McVeigh's best hope against the death penalty - though just how they would try to sell the jury remains to be seen. Jones may also emphasize McVeigh's combat during Desert Storm, when he won the Bronze Star. Another gambit could be Waco. NEWSWEEK has learned the defense has several Waco experts on its witness list, including Joel Dyer, author of a forthcoming book called ""Harvest of Rage.'' ""They're basically going to be hammering home the fact that the government was out of line at Waco and that someone like McVeigh could have been influenced to do something about it,'' Dyer said last week. No one knows if it would work - but barring a hung jury or a surprise acquittal, Tim McVeigh would have nothing much to lose.
In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 66% said that the jury should find Timothy McVeigh guilty; only 5% believed it should return a verdict of not guilty
If he is found guilty, 71% think McVeigh should get the death penalty; just 21% would oppose executing him