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Bombing Trial Will Be in Denver

By Lois Romano
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 21 1996; Page A07

A federal judge today ordered the trial of Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy James McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols moved to Denver, saying that the two men could not receive a fair trial anywhere in Oklahoma.

McVeigh and Nichols are charged with blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19 of last year, killing 169 people and injuring hundreds of others in the worst terrorist act ever committed on American soil.

"This court . . . concludes that there is so great a prejudice against these two defendants in the State of Oklahoma that they cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial at any place . . . in that state," wrote U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who is chief judge of the district court of Colorado and has offices in Denver. He did not set a date for the trial to begin.

Matsch's decision was a significant pretrial victory for the defense, which maintained during hearings last month that both the quantity and the intensity of local publicity about the death penalty case would make it impossible to find 12 impartial jurors in a state of 3 million people.

McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, said, "The judge examined all the evidence and saw that Oklahoma sees itself as the victims and that makes it difficult to get a fair trial here."

The government, while conceding that it would be problematic to hold the trial in Oklahoma City where the explosion destroyed so many lives, argued that the trial should be transferred to Tulsa, a two-hour drive away.

In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno said in a statement today that the government "does not have the right" to appeal Matsch's decision and therefore is ready to move to trial "expeditiously." Reno said the Justice Department would "pursue every means available to provide survivors and loved ones with an opportunity to observe and follow events in the courtroom."

Many relatives of those who died in the blast were upset with Matsch's ruling, saying the Denver judge did not show adequate appreciation for their pain.

"It stinks," says Kathleen Treanor, who lost her 4-year-old daughter, Ashley Eckles, as well as her in-laws in the blast. "Judge Matsch will not have to give up his bed or leave his home. He is inconvenienced in no way. I lost my only daughter and I won't be able to afford to go."

"I've been crying all morning," said Sharon Medearis, whose husband was killed in the truck bombing. Medearis said that she will attend the trial 700 miles away in Denver in any case, but that she "won't have any of my family around for support now."

Relatives of others who were killed in the blast said moving the trial from Oklahoma might be the safest bet to bring closure to the ordeal.

"It is very important that the trial be squeaky clean," said Toby Thompson, who lost his brother, Michael. "If moving it to Nova Scotia would ensure that I wouldn't have to go through it twice, that would be fine with me."

Legal experts said Matsch appeared to be taking a conservative route and trying to minimize the possibility that the venue issue could be used by the defense as the basis for an appeal.

In granting the defendants' motion for a change of venue, Matsch wrote that "the interests of the victims in being able to attend this trial in Oklahoma are outweighed by the court's obligation to assure that the trial be conducted with fundamental fairness and with due regard for all constitutional requirements."

Matsch seemed to agree with defense arguments that all citizens of the state cannot help but feel personally connected to the tragedy.

"The political leadership of the state has repeatedly and consistently emphasized the bonds tying all Oklahomans together as family," he wrote in his 16-page decision.

He also noted that feelings of pride in overcoming the tragedy can lead to prejudice, and "indeed it may go unrecognized in those who are affected by it."

Matsch also concurred with the defense's contention that McVeigh and Nichols had been "demonized" in the media. He called the local coverage of the bombing "more personal" than the national coverage.

"The intensity of the humanization of the victims in the public mind is in sharp contrast with the prevalent portrayals of the defendants," he wrote.

The judge further suggested that potential Oklahoma jurors might have difficulty making an unbiased judgment on whether the defendants should receive the death penalty if found guilty.

"Because the penalty of death is by its very nature different from all other punishments in that it is final and irrevocable, the issue of prejudice . . . must include consideration of whether there is a showing of a predilection toward that penalty," Matsch wrote.

"It is significant that there is a citizens' movement in Oklahoma to support pending legislation which would sharply limit the reviewability of a death sentence."

Matsch was assigned the case last December when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals removed Oklahoma Judge Wayne Alley as presiding judge because his courtroom had been so heavily damaged by the blast.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating, who has strongly pressed for the trial to be kept in state, criticized Matsch's ruling today and said that the judge chose Denver "for his personal comfort."

"It is easier for him to go home and sleep in his own bed," Keating said. "That's what his decision says to the hundreds and thousands of people impacted in this bombing. Its wrong on the facts and it's wrong on the law."

Keating says he will immediately push for federal funds to help transport and accommodate those who want to attend the trial. He said that he spoke today with Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb about trying to find housing for the relatives and friends of the victims.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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