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McVeigh Condemned to Death

James Blassengill and his wife, Willie, who lost six family members in the bombing, react to the verdict. AP Photo.

Verdict Coverage
From The Post

The case may become a benchmark in the capital punishment debate.

The jury that voted unanimously for execution is a disparate group.

At the scene of the tragedy, an easing of the pain.

Though he hoped to spark a revolution, McVeigh ended up weakening the
militia movement.

States with death penalty (followed by number executed)
N.H. 0
By Tom Kenworthy and Lois Romano Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 14, 1997; Page A01

DENVER, June 13 -- A federal jury today condemned Timothy J. McVeigh to death for the April 19, 1995, bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, injured hundreds more, and shattered a complacent nation's belief that the face of random political terror could never be American.

McVeigh, sitting with his elbows on the defense table and his hands clasped in front of his face, appeared absolutely unshaken by U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch's announcement of the jury's recommendation that McVeigh die for his crimes.

The 29-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran mouthed the words "it's okay" to his family sitting near the front of the courtroom, and gave a nod and a small wave of his fingers to the seven-man, five-woman jury as marshals escorted him from the courtroom. Matsch will formally sentence McVeigh to death by lethal injection at a later date.

McVeigh's younger sister and close confidante, Jennifer, cried as Matsch said to the hushed courtroom, "The jury recommends by unanimous vote that the defendant Timothy J. McVeigh shall be sentenced to death." His father William McVeigh slumped in his seat and his mother, Mildred Frazer, showed no outward emotion until afterward, when she wept as lawyers hugged and consoled her.

McVeigh's lead defense counsel, Stephen Jones, said even before the verdict was read that it would be appealed. McVeigh was tried under a 1994 federal anti-terrorism statute that has yet to be tested at the Supreme Court. His was the first case under that statute to proceed to sentencing. McVeigh has been housed in the basement of the federal courthouse for the trial, but will likely be returned to a federal penitentiary in a Denver suburb.

Outside the federal courthouse, when word filtered out to the street where several hundred spectators eagerly awaited the sentencing decision, the reaction was more subdued than when McVeigh was convicted June 2 of using a truck bomb to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. So, also, was the response of survivors and relatives of victims, who quietly hugged and held hands, appearing to appreciate the grave solemnity of the jury's decision to end a human life.

Marsha Kight, who lost her 23-year-old daughter in the explosion and who has attended virtually the entire trial, said that she would have preferred to see a sentence of life in prison. "There is a lot of pain in living -- death is pretty easy," she said.

McVeigh's execution "can't come too soon," said Blanche Tomlin, whose 46-year-old son died in the explosion. "It's what we wanted."

"The punishment fits the crime," said Jim Denny from Oklahoma City. His two children were seriously injured. "It's one more terrorist off the street."

Today's recommendation capped an 11-week trial that tested the government's commitment to deal swiftly and resolutely with acts of anti-government terror and its early promise of showing no mercy toward those accused of the worst act of mass murder in American history.

The sentence is also a prelude to the second act of the bombing's legal drama, the upcoming trial of McVeigh's co-defendant Terry L. Nichols, who likely will be tried early in the fall before a new jury.

Emerging from the courthouse, chief prosecutor Joseph H. Hartzler said: "We're pleased the system worked and justice prevailed. But the verdict doesn't diminish the great sadness that occurred in Oklahoma City two years ago. Our only hope is that the verdict will go some way to preventing such a terrible, drastic crime from ever occurring again."

With his fellow defense attorneys arrayed behind him, Jones read a prepared statement. "The jury has spoken and their verdict is entitled to respect, and all Americans should accord it that respect until such time, if ever, it is overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction," Jones said. "God save the United States of America and God save this honorable court."

Robert Nigh, another of McVeigh's attorneys who sat next to his client as the jury's decision was announced, said, "You could not say he was taken by surprise by this decision; he took it calmly."

In Washington, President Clinton thanked the jury for its "grave decisions," but declined to make further comment because of the pending Nichols trial.

"Since there is another trial pending, I cannot comment on the jury's decision," said Clinton in a prepared statement. "This investigation and trial have confirmed our country's faith in its justice system. To the victims and their families, I know that your healing can be measured only one day at a time. The prayers and support of your fellow Americans will be with you every one of those days."

Matsch today strongly suggested that jurors be prudent in their comments to the news media. "What you said to each other in that jury room is a matter that I suggest you should keep among yourselves," he said. "You decided this as a group of 12, no one of you can change it, and therefore you don't have to explain it to anyone. I can't order you not to talk . . . but I think all of you have respect for each other and I would think about that before answering any questions."

Responding to a motion by Nichols's attorney Michael Tigar, Matsch also asked the jury to refrain from predicting the impact of the McVeigh trial on the case of his accused co-conspirator. "This has not been a trial against Terry Nichols," the judge said.

In considering a death sentence, jurors had to be unanimous in their findings that there were seven so-called aggravating circumstances associated with McVeigh's crimes, including his intention to kill, his premeditation and planning, that he created a grave risk to others with reckless disregard for their lives, that he committed offenses against federal law enforcement officials and created severe losses for the victims' families.

They were less united in their consideration of mitigating factors proposed by the defense. Only two found McVeigh to be a "reliable and dependable person;" only four said he had "done good deeds and helped others" during his life; none saw him as a "good and loyal friend"; and none agreed with the defense that he "believed deeply in the ideals upon which the United States was founded."

Asked about her feelings on the lack of remorse shown by McVeigh in the courtroom, juror Diane Faircloth, told Knight Ridder: "Personally, I figure that that was in keeping with his character."

In returning a recommendation of death after a mere 11 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury charged with weighing McVeigh's fate accepted the government argument that the bombing and the deaths of so many innocent men, women and children was precisely the kind of heinous crime that Congress had in mind when it expanded the federal death penalty in 1988, and again in 1994.

The panel's decision came 11 days after the same jury found him guilty of all 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction. He faces what will surely be a prolonged period of waiting, in the isolation of a federal prison cell, as the legal machinery grinds through what could be several years of appeals, first to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and then, possibly, to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the sentence is upheld, McVeigh will be executed, but legal experts said it was impossible to predict when that might be, though Congress has enacted legislation to speed up the process.

Tonight, McVeigh's mother told ABC's "20/20" that she blamed the news media and the government for her son's fate.

"Since my son -- the day he was arrested -- I feel that it was done, that he was convicted and sentenced to death by the media and the government," said Mildred Frazer. "I'm not saying he didn't have a fair trial. I'm just saying that I don't think that it was done right from the beginning."

The government faces a more formidable obstacle in making the case against Nichols. A star prosecution witness in the first trial, McVeigh's Army friend Michael Fortier, testified that McVeigh told him Nichols got cold feet and backed out of the conspiracy just a few weeks before the bombing. Nichols was also at home in Herington, Kan., when the Murrah building was bombed, and voluntarily turned himself in to federal authorities for a lengthy interview when he learned McVeigh had been arrested.

But federal prosecutors argue that Nichols was still a culpable participant in the conspiracy that led to the bombing and thus is equally responsible for the murders.

For all the pretrial hype generated by McVeigh's 14-lawyer defense team, the former Army sergeant's attorneys were never a match for the impeccably prepared squadron of government prosecutors assembled by the Justice Department.

McVeigh, who pleaded not guilty, never took the stand in his own defense, and his attorneys never offered an alibi or a plausible alternative theory to the one presented by the government. In the end, after suggesting during the trial that a mystery bomber may have destroyed the building, McVeigh's attorneys tried to persuade the jury to spare his life by admitting his involvement but maintaining it was a "political" crime.

Today, Nigh said: "Well, we're human and we make mistakes. It's nothing that you look back on and kick yourself about."

Appellate lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz predicted that Jones's lackluster performance would mean he will not represent McVeigh on appeal.

"When [McVeigh] gets to prison, he's going to learn that his lawyer did a terrible job," said Dershowitz. "This is going to be the grist of the eventual appeal. This was an awful, awful defense . . . His lawyers seemed to be more interested in their own reputations."

By contrast, the prosecutorial team led by Hartzler, an assistant U.S. attorney from Springfield, Ill., presented a lean and compelling case during the seven-week guilt phase of the trial.

The government proved that McVeigh, his disaffection with his government enflamed to the boiling point by the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious headquarters near Waco, Tex., methodically plotted for months to retaliate by bombing the building with a Ryder truck laden with home-made explosives. The attack, designed to inspire a popular uprising, came on the second anniversary of the Waco raid that left roughly 80 followers of cult leader David Koresh dead, most of them consumed in an inferno that destroyed their Mount Carmel compound.

After the jury found McVeigh guilty, government prosecutors orchestrated an emotional crescendo with three more days of anguishing testimony by survivors of the blast, relatives of victims and rescue workers still traumatized by the death and destruction. The antiseptic second-floor federal courtroom was transformed into a drawn-out memorial service, a wake for the dead and a catharsis for the living. Most of the jurors wept, even as McVeigh sat through it all showing almost no emotion.

McVeigh's defense team was left with little maneuvering room. At the end, in a closing presentation that astonished and perplexed some legal experts, Jones said of McVeigh "he is not a demon though surely his act was demonic." He asked that McVeigh be spared so that some day the full story might come out, so that the political alienation he personified would not be rekindled by his execution.

In a final burst of drama, prosecutor Beth Wilkinson closed the government's case by pointing at McVeigh and telling the jury: "Look into the eyes of a coward and tell him you will have courage. Tell him you will speak with one unified voice as the moral conscience of the community and tell him he is no patriot. He is a traitor and he deserves to die."

On an early summer afternoon in downtown Denver today, with hundreds of ordinary people waiting on Stout Street for the system McVeigh so despised to work its will, the jury agreed.

Staff writer William Claiborne and special correspondent Margot Wright contributed to this report.

Background: The Death Penalty
Dozens of people are executed every year in the United States, 400 in the last two decades.

But the executioners don't keep pace with the sentencers, and the number of prisoners on death row has risen into the thousands. Federal executions are rare; the last was in 1963.

The Stop and Go Of Capital Punishment
1927-63: United States executes 34 people under federal statutes.

1972: Supreme Court rules state death penalty statutes unconstitutional because they allow for arbitrary application; no death penalties upheld under older federal statutes for the same reason.

1976: Supreme Court begins approving death penalty laws after states submit revised statutes.

1977: Gary Gilmore executed, the first capital punishment in the United States since 1967.

1988: New federal death penalty statute enacted for murder in course of a drug kingpin conspiracy.

1994: Federal death penalty expanded under omnibus crime bill; applies to about 60 offenses.

1997: Timothy J. McVeigh joins the 12 federal prisoners on death row.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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