Prosecutor Paints McVeigh As 'Twisted' U.S. Terrorist
By Lois Romano and Tom Kenworthy
Repeatedly assailing Timothy J. McVeigh as "twisted," a federal prosecutor today portrayed the accused Oklahoma City bomber as a calculating terrorist whose warped sense of patriotism drove him to kill 168 people in hopes of starting a popular uprising against the federal government.
"In plain and simple terms, it was an act of terror," Joseph Hartzler told the rapt jury during opening arguments, his voice at times cracking with emotion. "The man who committed this act is sitting in this courtroom behind me. He is the one who committed those murders."
Countering the government's richly detailed portrayal of McVeigh's escalating hatred of the government, his lawyer, Stephen Jones, proclaimed his client's innocence and argued that McVeigh's political views fell within the "political and social mainstream."
McVeigh, sporting a bright blue plaid shirt, listened intently in a courtroom packed with 150 people as Jones conceded to jurors that McVeigh was "extremely upset" over what he viewed as government abuses of individual liberty. But, Jones insisted, it was no different from how "millions of people fear and distrust the government."
The sharply contrasting views of McVeigh, 29, came two years and five days after a massive truck bomb sheared off the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 149 adults and 19 children, injuring more than 500 others, and forever shattering the nation's sense of immunity from terrorism. The trial is likely to last several months. McVeigh's co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, facing identical murder and conspiracy charges that could also bring the death penalty, will be tried separately.
Addressing the jury of seven men and five women, Hartzler zeroed in on McVeigh's alleged motives. He charged that McVeigh, after his discharge from the Army, blew up the building to avenge the federal assault on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Tex., in 1993. And for the first time, he revealed fresh evidence collected from McVeigh in the hours after his arrest, 75 miles from Oklahoma City on the day of the blast.
There was an excerpt found in McVeigh's car from "The Turner Diaries," the far-right novel that advocates a violent uprising against a seemingly oppressive government. "The real value of our attack lies in the psychological impact, not in the immediate casualties," Hartzler read from the excerpt. The T-shirt McVeigh wore at the time of his arrest, said Hartzler, also "broadcast his intentions." On the front was a likeness of Abraham Lincoln and on the back a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Drops of scarlet blood dripped from a picture of a tree.
Traces of residue from a detonator cord, the prosecutor said, were found on McVeigh's shirt, in the pockets of his pants and on a set of earplugs found in his pocket.
Hartzler also read from an incriminating document found on a computer file McVeigh had created at the home of his sister, Jennifer, who will testify for the government. "All you tyrannical [expletive], you'll swing in the wind one day for your treasonous attacks against the Constitution of the United States," Hartzler quoted from the file. "Die, you spineless, cowardice bastards."
The prosecutor began his remarks with the dramatic recounting of how an idyllic spring day in Oklahoma City turned into a nightmare when McVeigh allegedly parked a Ryder truck he had rented two days before in front of a federal building swarming with government workers. He told the story of 16-month-old Tevin Garrett, who was dropped off at the Murrah building day-care center shortly before the blast. He spoke of how Tevin had cried and clung to his mother, and how she and other parents could look up at the plate glasses windows in front of the Murrah building to wave goodbye to their children.
"It was almost as if you could reach up and touch the children," Hartzler said. "None of those parents ever touched their children again while they were alive." (Fifteen of the 21 children in the second-floor day-care center were killed by the blast.) McVeigh, Hartzler said, "chose to take their innocent lives to serve his own twisted purposes."
The government also used its opening statement to preempt expected defense attacks on the credibility of its star witness, Michael Fortier, on the handling of critical evidence by the FBI's forensics laboratory, and on some of the case's big holes, including the never-found suspect John Doe No. 2.
Speaking of Fortier, who pleaded guilty to lesser federal charges in exchange for his testimony, Hartzler acknowledged that McVeigh's Army buddy initially lied to the authorities, but said his testimony of how McVeigh meticulously planned the bombing will be corroborated by others.
"He told Michael Fortier and his wife [Lori] about his plan . . . that it was time for him to take action against the government and . . . [that] he would blow up a building," Hartzler said. "He told Fortier how he had purchased some of the ingredients from a farm supply store. . . . And he took him to Oklahoma City and showed him the building."
Hartzler said that when Fortier questioned him about killing innocent people, McVeigh "compared them to the storm troopers in `Star Wars.` Even if they are innocent they work for an evil system and have to be killed."
In his 2 1/2-hour opening statement, McVeigh's lawyer focused heavily on Fortier's motivations for cooperating with government prosecutors, and on the sometimes inconsistent memories of key witnesses, particularly those associated with the rental of the Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan. Jones also served notice that he will rely heavily on the Justice Department inspector general's report condemning the FBI's handling of key evidence in the case. "The individuals responsible for the evidence . . . contaminated it . . . manipulated it and then they engaged in forensic prostitution," said Jones.
In the days immediately after McVeigh's arrest, Jones said, Fortier denied any knowledge of the bombing and insisted his old Army friend could not have been involved. Fortier made those statements, said Jones, to friends, the news media and FBI agents, and he never contradicted them in private conversations picked up by government listening devices.
Fortier changed his story and began aiding the government, said Jones, only after he had learned the details of the government's case from news accounts and realized that he too could be tried unless he became a cooperative witness. Since the couple knew they could also be charged with drug possession and perjury, Jones said, "under such circumstances Mr. and Mrs. Fortier could only be expected to say whatever the government wanted to hear."
Although Jones sought to build empathy with the jury by reading the names of the 168 bombing victims, and by comparing the blast's emotional impact with Pearl Harbor, it was Hartzler who struck the strongest emotional chord on the trial's opening day.
"Timothy McVeigh liked to consider himself a patriot, as someone who could start a second American revolution," Hartzler said. "Ladies and gentlemen, statements from our forefathers can never be twisted to justify warfare against women and children. Our forefathers didn't fight British women and children. They fought other soldiers, they fought them face to face, hand to hand.
"They didn't plant bombs and then run away wearing earplugs."
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