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Report of Admission Throws Oklahoma Bomb Case Into Turmoil

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 1997; Page A01

Defense lawyers, prosecutors and the judge in the Oklahoma City bombing case held a hastily called meeting here today after a Dallas newspaper's report that defendant Timothy J. McVeigh had admitted to his defense team that he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building two years ago.

McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, immediately denounced the report as a "hoax" and disputed the documents' authenticity.

The report in Saturday's editions of the Dallas Morning News, posted this afternoon on the newspaper's Internet site, said that McVeigh told his attorneys he committed the bombing during daylight hours to ensure a "body count" that would get his political point across to the government.

The newspaper said its article was based on summaries it had "examined" of several interviews conducted with McVeigh by an unnamed member of his defense team in 1995. Jones told the newspaper the summaries were either stolen or fakes. "None of that sounds familiar to me," he said. Jones told the Associated Press, "I think it's a hoax."

Outside the courthouse this evening, Jones said of the documents: "It's not anything I'm familiar with. If McVeigh said anything like that to the defense team, I think I would be aware of it."

Jones called the Morning News "one of the most irresponsible newspapers in the country." He accused the paper of trying to build circulation in Oklahoma and said the paper put the report on its World Wide Web site out of fear that U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch would issue an injunction against publication.

Jones said the Morning News refused to show him the documents but revealed the confidential source to him. Jones said that source "has a reason to dislike this newspaper" and is using an intermediary "setting up" the paper. "They just bought the Brooklyn Bridge," he said.

Jones said he instigated the courthouse meeting to inform the judge of the article.

Morning News Editor Ralph Langer was quoted by his paper as saying the documents were obtained legally.

McVeigh is scheduled to be tried in federal court here March 31 in the bombing, which killed 168 people and wounded more than 500 more. His co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, is to be tried separately. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

According to the Morning News account, McVeigh also implicated Nichols in the plot, but said he alone drove the rented Ryder truck to the front of the Murrah building and set off the massive explosion the morning of April 19, 1995.

It is not clear what impact the Dallas report could have on the upcoming trial. Any summaries of interviews between McVeigh and his defense attorneys would not be admissible at trial because they are protected by the attorney-client privilege and are considered confidential.

If it turns out that McVeigh has indeed admitted guilt to his lawyers, that would not keep them from putting on a strong defense. Lawyers often know of a client's guilt, said University of Illinois law professor Ronald Rotunda.

"The job of a lawyer is not to judge a client but to present the best case possible," said Rotunda, an expert in ethics for lawyers. "The mere fact that a client confesses does not affect any ethical obligations of the lawyer." He added that a lawyer may not make statements that he knows to be false, but that typically the knowledge that a client is not innocent does not interfere with his defense.

Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet added separately that if a lawyer knows of a client's guilt, "It certainly wouldn't prevent a vigorous defense."

Lubet, an expert in legal ethics and trial advocacy, added that any determination of whether the attorney-client privilege had been broken, thus allowing the documents to be used in the trial, would depend on how the incriminating statements came to light. He said the privilege might be broken if, for example, a defense lawyer negligently allowed the statements to be disclosed.

Lubet also noted that if it turned out that a defendant's own lawyer was responsible for a leak of confidential communications, the lawyer would be liable under state disciplinary law.

The Morning News described the documents as summaries of defense meetings with McVeigh between July and December 1995 at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. Jones became McVeigh's court-appointed lawyer in May 1995 after two previous attorneys, John Coyle III and Susan Otto, asked to be removed from the case.

The newspaper's report said McVeigh also implicated Nichols in the commission of a November 1994 robbery in Arkansas that the government believes was used to bankroll the Murrah building bombing. McVeigh says, according to the reputed defense reports, that the two men planned the robbery together and Nichols carried it out.

According to the notes quoted by the Morning News, McVeigh responded in chilling fashion when told anti-government activists would have viewed him as a hero if he had bombed the building at night, when it would have caused far fewer casualties and presumably not killed any children.

"Mr. McVeigh looked directly into my eyes and told me, `That would not have gotten the point across to the government. We needed a body count to make our point,' " the defense team member was said to have written in the interview notes.

Government prosecutors and Michael Tigar, Nichols's attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

Although McVeigh has granted several interviews since his arrest, he has never publicly denied responsibility for the bombing, and the Morning News report is similar to a May 1995 account in the New York Times, which said he had claimed responsibility based on "two people who have talked with him in jail since his arrest."

Asked by Newsweek in 1995 if he carried out the bombing, McVeigh said: "The only way we can really answer that is that we are going to plead not guilty."

But the Dallas newspaper report included numerous rich details reportedly provided by McVeigh, including his account that the bomb used to destroy the Murrah building was made of 5,400 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer purchased for $540 and $3,000 worth of racing fuel. Government explosives experts have estimated the weight of the bomb as 4,800 pounds. The notes say that McVeigh implicated Nichols in the purchase of the fuel used in the fertilizer-fuel bomb, the Morning News said.

The newspaper's account of the McVeigh interviews bolsters a key government witness's account of the disposal of the weapons stolen from Arkansas gun dealer Robert Moore. McVeigh reportedly told the defense team that he and Michael Fortier -- a close friend who will testify against him at trial -- picked up the guns in Council Grove, Kan., where Nichols had stored them, and transported them to Kingman, Ariz.

According to the Morning News, McVeigh's account also details how he and Nichols stole explosives from a quarry in Marion, Kan., an allegation contained in the federal case against the two men.

In the summaries of the interviews reported by the Morning News, McVeigh also undercut the validity of many of the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the bombing, some of which have been encouraged by Jones and his defense team.

Shown diagrams of a bombing plot involving foreign terrorists, McVeigh told the defense interviewer, according to the Morning News, that the source "appeared to be a `bull -- artist' and that there would probably be more theories by many other people as the days continued."

McVeigh also confirmed an account by a German national, Andreas Strassmeir, that the two men had only met once at a gun show. One widely circulated conspiracy theory holds that Strassmeir, who lived at a white supremacist compound in eastern Oklahoma and allegedly called by McVeigh just before the bombing, may have had a role in the attack.

The newspaper's account also said McVeigh told the interviewer he had had sexual relations with the wife of Terry Nichols during the summer before the bombing. "Mr. McVeigh stated they had sex during the times that Terry was at work," the newspaper quoted the defense team member's account. "He told me to just mention his water bed when I spoke to her, that she would know what it meant."

The news of McVeigh's reported admission to the bombing received massive publicity on Denver television and radio stations tonight, just 10 days after Matsch sent out a jury summons for the trial that starts in a little more than four weeks. It is likely that potential jurors will be questioned closely on whether they were aware of those news accounts.

The Oklahoma City bombing trial was moved here from the scene of the bombing in large part because it was feared that selecting an unbiased panel would be extremely difficult in the state where the bombing occurred.

Jones tonight said he did not expect Matsch to alter the schedule for the upcoming trial in any way because of the Morning News article. "I don't think he's going to do anything with it," Jones said. Nor, added McVeigh's lawyer, did he expect the sensational revelations to have any effect on potential jurors. "I don't think the people of Colorado give two hoots in a holler what a some Texas newspaper says," he said.

"I am confident," said Jones, "that Judge Matsch is going to see that we get a fair jury."

During numerous pretrial hearings over the past eight months, Matsch has demonstrated he is a no-nonsense jurist intent on keeping the many lawyers involved in the trial on a short leash. His impatience from the bench is legendary, and it is not at all unusual for him to dismissively order attorneys from both sides to stop wasting the court's time and sit down.

Asked tonight whether Matsch was angry about the newspaper report, Jones replied: "You all have seen Judge Matsch's demeanor. I don't think I have to describe it any further."

Staff writer Joan Biskupic in Washington contributed to this report.

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