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Survivors, Relatives to Watch Proceedings

From News Services
Wednesday, March 26, 1997; Page A04
The Washington Post

Bowing to the wishes of Congress, a judge reversed himself today and allowed survivors and relatives to watch the Oklahoma City bombing trial even if they plan to testify in a penalty phase.

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch had barred survivors and victims' relatives if they wanted to testify at a possible death-penalty sentencing hearing or provide statements about the bombing's impact on their lives.

But in his reversal, Matsch said under a law signed Thursday by President Clinton, it was clear Congress intended those victims to be allowed to attend the trial of Timothy J. McVeigh, which begins Monday.

"I'm elated," said Delores Watson, whose grandson, P.J. Allen, was severely injured in the blast. "The more I know about the trial helps me with the healing process."

Matsch said in his ruling that any further debate on the issue would delay the trial. He noted he can still protect McVeigh's rights by allowing his attorneys to question the victim witnesses outside the presence of a jury.

Prosecutors already have chosen the victim-impact witnesses they intend to call if there is a sentencing phase to the trial. Their number is believed to be between one and two dozen.

Matsch said his ruling also extends to victims and relatives who want to watch the trial on closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City. The historic closed-circuit provision also was passed by Congress last year.

"It's a great deal for the victims. . . . It's really a load off those people's backs," said Roy Sells, who had given up the opportunity to testify so he could watch pretrial hearings.

His wife, Lee, was among the 168 people killed April 19, 1995, when a truck bomb ripped through the Oklahoma City federal building. More than 500 others were injured.

Matsch had barred the victim-witnesses from his courtroom last June out of fear their testimony might be tainted by watching the trial. An appeal failed, so victims' relatives turned to Congress.

The Senate and House passed the bill last week, and Clinton's signature effectively overturned Matsch's ruling.

In another development today, McVeigh's lawyers asked a federal appeals court to compel prosecutors to give the defense confidential intelligence documents from numerous U.S. government agencies. The defense team asked the appeals court to postpone the trial from Monday's scheduled start or to delay the presentation of evidence until the appeals court rules on the request for the classified documents.

The defense team told the appeals court it needs the material to investigate its theory that a foreign government may have planned the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

"The government of the United States is hiding from the defense and the trial court evidence and information that the government had a prior warning that the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City (and possibly federal property in Tulsa) was very likely a target of a terrorist attack on our about April 19, 1995," the defense lawyers said in their filing with the appeals court.

McVeigh's attorneys previously put forth the suggestion that foreign terrorists may have played a role in the bombing.

The defense filing sought a writ of mandamus against Matsch, saying that he has failed to require prosecutors to provide the intelligence information.

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