For a member of the legal team that successfully prosecuted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, supporting a Victims' Rights Amendment to the Constitution might seem to be an obvious choice. But while Sen. Jon Kyl ["What the System Owes the Victim," op-ed, July 22] points to the Oklahoma City bombing as reason to support the proposed amendment, my firsthand experience in that case convinces me that our prosecution could have been substantially impaired had the constitutional amendment now under consideration been in place.
I say this after spending hours with mothers and fathers who lost their children in the day care center.
I say this after listening to people describe the horror of being injured and trapped in the dark, collapsed remains of the Alfred P. Murrah building.
And I say this knowing the relief and satisfaction many victims felt when the criminal trial ended with the fair and just conviction of Timothy McVeigh. It is this, the victims' most important right -- a fair and just conviction -- that the proposed constitutional amendment threatens.
Consider that a provision of the amendment allows victims to testify before a judge accepts a plea bargain; if this had governed our efforts, we could have lost key evidence against McVeigh and Nichols. Early in our investigation, agents and prosecutors determined that Michael Fortier's testimony would greatly assist the team in obtaining convictions against those most culpable, McVeigh and Nichols. While not a participant in the conspiracy, Fortier knew about their plans to bomb the building -- and the people inside it -- but he did nothing to stop them.
Fortier's inaction was reprehensible, and most victims, if given the opportunity to testify, would have strongly opposed any plea bargain between the government and Fortier. Yet, due to the secrecy rules of the grand jury, we could not have explained to them why Fortier's plea and cooperation were important to the prosecution effort. Had the judge felt compelled to reject Fortier's plea because of the victims' opposition, or at least forced us to explain why his testimony was essential, McVeigh's trial could have turned out differently. If, as a result, we had been required to prosecute Fortier, significant prosecutorial resources would have been diverted from the investigation and prosecution of McVeigh and Nichols, and we would have lost Fortier's crucial testimony. The amendment's plea bargain provision could actually have harmed victims' interest.
At the same time, many of the other rights delineated in the proposed constitutional amendment are already available to victims. Sen. Kyl believes that all crime victims should receive notice of public proceedings in a case and be permitted to attend if they so choose. I agree, and in fact the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing received such information. The prosecution team met with them on a regular basis, and many were present in the courtroom throughout the trials. Thirty-five victim-witnesses testified in front of the jury that pronounced a death sentence for McVeigh, and many others testified at Nichols's sentencing hearing.
But not every case has the dedicated resources available to us in McVeigh and Nichols. Better funding is necessary to educate prosecutors, law enforcement and judges about the impact of crimes so that they better understand the importance of addressing victims' rights. With additional resources for victim-related programs, we could ensure not only that victims are notified of public and judicial proceedings but also that laws affecting victims' rights have the resources and personnel necessary for implementation.
The problem, I suggest, lies here. We have not provided the resources required to execute the laws, already in place, that address the very concerns raised by the Victims' Rights Amendment. For instance, we already have a Speedy Trial Act to prevent unreasonable delay. We already require consideration of victims' safety before granting bail. What we do not have are the money and resources to support the law enforcement, social workers, prison officials and judges responsible for carrying out these laws. The failing lies not with the substance of our law but with the lack of resources necessary to implement the law as it now stands.
One hundred and sixty-eight people died in the Oklahoma City bombing, including 19 children. For the survivors and for the hundreds of relatives of the victims, the emotional struggle has been and will continue to be enormous. Their grief would only have been exacerbated if we had been unable to secure convictions of McVeigh and Nichols. Yet, with their help, with their dignified testimony during the trials, penalty phases and sentencing hearings, and with the judge's vigilant protection of the defendants' rights, we were able to vindicate the victims' most important right: the fair and just conviction of the guilty. We might not have reached this result had the Victims' Rights Amendment been in place.
The writer, who is now a Washington lawyer, was a member of the McVeigh and Nichols prosecution team.