McVeigh Guilty on All 11 Counts
and Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Writers
Tuesday, June 3, 1997;
Timothy J. McVeigh was convicted today of the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.
A federal jury of seven men and five women deliberated for 23 hours over four days before finding McVeigh guilty on all 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and using a weapon of mass destruction in the devastating April 19, 1995, blast. The panel now must decide whether McVeigh, 29, should be sentenced to death by lethal injection or to life in prison without possibility of parole. The punishment phase of the trial begins Wednesday.
McVeigh, without any member of his family present, sat stone-faced, staring at U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch as the judge slowly read each of the counts, followed by the single word "guilty." The former Army sergeant never changed his expression but covered his mouth with his hand as Matsch individually polled members of the jury, whose names have not been made public.
When the first verdict was read, 50 survivors of the blast and relatives of the victims who had packed the courtroom held hands and quietly wept. Matsch had warned spectators to show "no audible or visible reaction" to the verdicts inside the courtroom. But when family members walked out into the afternoon light after McVeigh had been led away by four U.S. marshals, many were sobbing uncontrollably.
"I want him to get the death penalty . . . because I have never seen any remorse from Tim McVeigh," said Jannie Coverdale, who lost her two young grandsons in the blast and who has attended almost every hearing since McVeigh's arrest.
A teary-eyed Roy Sells, who lost his wife, Leora, told reporters that when he heard the verdicts he said to his wife in heaven, "Honey, justice has been served."
Hundreds of spectators lined the streets outside the downtown courthouse and cheered lead federal prosecutor Joseph H. Hartzler as he left the building giving the thumbs-up sign. "We thank the victims for their patience and dignity throughout this whole ordeal," he said. "We are obviously very pleased. We always had confidence in our evidence. Now everyone else will have confidence in the evidence and the verdict. We're ready to move on to the next stage."
McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran, was charged with one count each of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction and destruction of a federal building with an explosive, and eight counts of premeditated murder in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers while they were on duty.
McVeigh's father, William, and sister, Jennifer, released a statement today from the Pendleton, N.Y., home where McVeigh once lived. "Even though the jury has found Tim guilty, we still love him very much and intend to stand by him no matter what happens," said the statement, which was released two hours after the verdicts and read by a Buffalo News reporter who is a family friend. "We would like to ask everyone to pray for Tim in this difficult time."
McVeigh's attorney Stephen Jones congratulated the prosecution for winning the case and told reporters, "We will be ready for the next stage in the morning." Jones also said he would be visiting McVeigh this evening at the cell specially constructed for him, in the basement of the federal courthouse here.
President Clinton, who two days after the blast promised that justice would be "swift, certain and severe," today declined to comment on the verdicts but said that the end of the trial was a "long-overdue day" for the survivors and relatives of the victims. "I say to the families of the victims: No single verdict can bring an end to your anguish. But your courage has been an inspiration to all Americans. Our prayers are with you."
The much anticipated verdicts came 25 months after 4,000 pounds of homemade explosives packed inside a rented truck detonated in front of the nine-story Murrah building at the start of a beautiful spring workday. Twenty-one children under 5 years old were just finishing a morning snack at 9:02 when the massive ammonium nitrate and fuel bomb detonated less than 30 feet from the building's second-floor day-care center. Fifteen of the children perished. So too did employees in numerous federal agencies headquartered there and visitors to those offices. It was not until May 29 that the last three bodies were pulled from the rubble.
The explosion and its horrific aftermath riveted the nation for months and forever shattered the illusion that the unknown face of terrorism could never be American. As thousands of rescue workers from across the country descended on Oklahoma City, there was rampant speculation that foreign terrorists had blown up the nine-story building.
Two days after the blast, on April 21, Americans learned that the suspected terrorist was homegrown, a clean-cut young man from upstate New York who had played in Little League and had a distinguished military record. But sometime after leaving the Army in 1991 he began to drift, coming to hate his government and identify with far right-wing militia sentiments.
"Tim McVeigh is a domestic terrorist," federal prosecutor Larry Mackey reminded jurors in his closing statements last week. The panel clearly agreed, despite a strong closing argument from Jones that the prosecution's facts didn't add up.
But Jones's case and courtroom delivery never came close to the expectations he had created and the promises he made that he would prove not only that the government had the wrong man but that the bombing was the work of international terrorists. Legal experts who watched the trial said the lawyer from Enid, Okla., who was appointed by the court to defend McVeigh, deserved high marks for his aggressive cross-examination of certain key witnesses. But for all the resources he had at his disposal, they said, he presented a case that seemed unfocused and aimless. Jones had assembled a team of 14 taxpayer-paid lawyers; some estimates put the cost of the defense upward of $10 million.
"Jones's big problem is that he had no alternative theory," said Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "What he was left with was poking holes in the government's story, and that just wasn't enough."
Levenson said that since McVeigh did not testify, jurors were left with many unanswered questions. "They had no one to tell the story for McVeigh, so it made it that much more glaring that he didn't tell his own story."
Jones was partially hamstrung by Judge Matsch, who prevented him from presenting any conspiracy witnesses and largely thwarted his attempts to put on trial the FBI crime lab that handled the case's forensic evidence. The lab, which identified explosive residue on McVeigh's clothing and ammonium nitrate crystals on a piece of the truck, was harshly criticized for its shoddy procedures in an April Justice Department inspector general's report. The government, by contrast, presented a tight, focused case. The prosecution team, led by Hartzler, managed to keep emotions high and the pace breathtakingly fast in the five weeks of testimony, despite a number of handicaps.
Even after the most exhaustive criminal investigation in U.S. history, prosecutors produced no eyewitness placing McVeigh at the scene of the bombing. They presented no evidence showing that McVeigh and his alleged co-conspirator, Terry L. Nichols, who will be tried separately at a later date, actually built the bomb. They had no fingerprints on the truck rental agreement or the truck key found in an Oklahoma City alley, and no fertilizer residue in the storage lockers the conspirators allegedly used to store their bomb-making materials.
What they had in spades, though, was an apparent motive: a compelling story of how a seemingly normal kid from upstate New York evolved into an anti-government zealot pushed -- as McVeigh himself wrote a friend -- "from the intellectual to the animal" by the federal government's April 19, 1993, raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex.
They also had a defendant who recklessly left a paper trail broadcasting his loathing for the federal government, and confiding his criminal intentions to friends and relatives. His sister Jennifer and his former friends Michael and Lori Fortier provided the most damaging testimony of the trial -- that McVeigh had meticulously planned the bombing over six months and had warned Jennifer that "something big was going to happen" that spring of 1995.
The bulk of the prosecution's case was circumstantial but overwhelming in its detail. The Ryder rental truck -- identified through a vehicle identification number found on an axle at the scene -- was traced to a rental outlet in Junction City, Kan. McVeigh was identified as the man using the name Robert Kling who rented that truck two days before the bombing. Phone records showed McVeigh shopping for bomb materials. He was stopped 75 minutes after the blast 78 miles from the scene, his car loaded with anti-government propaganda. His pockets, his jeans and his earplugs were sprinkled with traces of PETN, a compound used in detonator cord.
The son of an auto worker, McVeigh had an all-American boyhood in Pendleton, N.Y., but by some accounts was profoundly affected when, at age 10, his parents divorced and his mother moved to Florida. In his early teens, he began a love affair with firearms and described himself as a survivalist, stockpiling food and other supplies in case of a nuclear attack.
McVeigh seemed most at home in the Army, thriving under the service's strict regimen and demand for neatness and discipline. He excelled as a Bradley fighting vehicle gunner, winning a Bronze Star during the Persian Gulf War.
But after returning from the Gulf, he washed out of Special Forces training, left the Army and began a personal downward spiral that saw him drifting back and forth across the country, attending gun shows, and becoming more and more disillusioned with his government. His political bible was "The Turner Diaries," a racist and antisemitic novel that recounts a popular uprising against a seemingly oppressive government and features a truck bomb attack on FBI headquarters in Washington.
But it was the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound that set McVeigh on a path toward the Murrah building. Convinced that federal agents had murdered the roughly 80 cultists who died in the fiery end of the Branch Davidian standoff, McVeigh in 1994 began planning his revenge. He told Michael Fortier when the two cased the Murrah building that he was unconcerned about killing innocent government workers because they too were agents of the "evil empire."
The penalty phase in a capital case is virtually a second, abbreviated trial where both sides can offer what are known as "aggravating" or "mitigating" circumstances to sway the jury, which must be unanimous to impose the death penalty. Lawyers close to the case estimate this phase will last a week and a half.
With McVeigh's life hanging in the balance, there are essentially no restrictions on how many witnesses his lawyers can call to attest to his character and offer reasons why he should be not be put to death. The "mitigating" factors a jury can consider by law include the fact that McVeigh did not have a "significant prior criminal record" or that an "equally culpable" suspect -- even if unknown -- will not be executed.
McVeigh's parents -- who have not been in court since the first days of jury selection -- will have the opportunity to appeal to the jury to spare their only son. Sources familiar with the defense say that it will also call friends, military supervisors and perhaps schoolteachers.
But McVeigh himself is not likely to testify, one source said, because the Oklahoma City district attorney has announced that he will file state murder charges against McVeigh regardless of the outcome of the federal trial. Under Supreme Court precedent, McVeigh can be tried by the state without violating the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy because the state would charge him with a different crime -- the murders of the other 160 victims who were not federal law enforcement agents.
Jurors also are expected to hear several days of wrenching testimony from relatives of the murder victims, who will speak of their pain and loss, according to those familiar with the government's plans. The "aggravating" factors prosecutors will implore the jury to consider are McVeigh's intent to kill, the particularly cruel nature of the crime and the fact that children died in the blast.
Since 1988 and 1994 crime bills greatly expanded the number of federal crimes punishable by death, the Justice Department has authorized seeking the death penalty against 92 defendants. Of particular concern to prosecutors in this case is the fact that juries in Colorado, unlike Oklahoma, rarely vote for death. Just five people sit on Colorado's death row, compared with more than 140 in Oklahoma.
However, all 12 jurors and six alternates vowed during jury selection that they could impose a death sentence, a requirement for serving in a federal capital case. The jury selected as its leader the son of a career Air Force officer, an unmarried engineer who was dubbed "The GQ Juror" for his penchant for wearing well-tailored suits to most court sessions. As Matsch read the verdicts today, the foreman stared coldly at McVeigh. The oldest juror, a retired Sears employee who had served as a juror in a criminal case many years ago in New Jersey, filed into the courtroom with red eyes and clutching a tissue.
Many of the jurors had only a rudimentary knowledge of the case when questioned during jury selection, but nearly all paid extremely close attention during the 22 days of witness testimony. None looked at McVeigh as they filed into the courtroom today at 1:30 p.m. local time.
Matsch was appointed to the case after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recused all Oklahoma judges, citing an appearance of conflict because the federal courthouse had been so heavily damaged in the blast. The federal judge ordered the case moved to his home court early last year, declaring that McVeigh and Nichols could not get a fair trial in Oklahoma because they had been "demonized" in the state.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company