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Judge Rejects Attempt to Delay Oklahoma City Bombing Trial

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18 1997; Page A02

DENVER, March 17 -- A federal judge today rejected appeals by accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh to block, delay or move his trial because of a flurry of news reports that he had confessed to his own defense lawyers.

"I have full confidence that a fair-minded jury can and will be impaneled and that those selected will return a just verdict based on the law and evidence presented to them," U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch wrote in a five-page opinion.

Matsch's ruling clears the way for McVeigh's trial to begin as scheduled on March 31. He and his codefendant, Terry L. Nichols, who will be tried later, face the death penalty on murder and conspiracy charges stemming from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.

Matsch pointedly rejected arguments by McVeigh's lead attorney, Stephen Jones, that damaging accounts of his client's purported "confession" had made a fair trial impossible and had deprived him of the right to counsel by breaching the attorney-client privilege. Jones asked the court last Friday to dismiss the charges against McVeigh or, failing that, to delay the case for a year or move it to a distant locale.

But Matsch said it is unlikely that the recent accounts in the Dallas Morning News and Playboy magazine have had as widespread or decisive an impact on the Colorado jury pool as Jones fears. He said that careful questioning of potential jurors should weed out those whose ability to weigh the evidence impartially has been compromised.

"The two published stories and the publicity surrounding them must be considered in the full context of all that has been said and done in connection with this case," wrote Matsch. "There is no reason to believe that fair-minded persons would be so influenced by anything contained in this recent publicity that they would not be ready, willing and able to perform the duty to follow the law and decide according to the evidence presented in a vigorously contested trial."

"Judge Matsch has addressed these issues, and we'll hope he's right," Jones said after the ruling, according to the Associated Press.

In a period of just over two weeks, the Morning News, Playboy and now Newsweek have run articles alleging that McVeigh had admitted his role in the bombing to his attorneys. The Newsweek piece, published yesterday, says that "McVeigh confirmed his role in blowing up the Murrah building on a lie-detector test administered by his own lawyers."

In his motion to dismiss, delay or move the trial out of Colorado, Jones wrote: "On the very eve of his day in court, and through no fault of his own, Mr. McVeigh's right to a fair trial has been fatally compromised. Misguided media representatives have stripped Mr. McVeigh of any vestige of a presumption of innocence, have poisoned the jury pool with extremely prejudicial news reports, and have rendered impossible any opportunity for a fair trial."

But Matsch discounted the potential impact of the news stories. "Past experience with jurors and a general awareness of public attitudes about pretrial publicity in criminal cases strongly suggest that these stories have had neither the wide exposure nor general acceptance that the defendant's lawyers presume," he wrote.

"In sum, every possible aspect of this story has been explored in media coverage. More can be expected, with an increasing slant toward the sensational as the communicators compete for public attention before trial."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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