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Jury to Get McVeigh Case Today

By Tom Kenworthy and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 30, 1997; Page A01

The case against Timothy J. McVeigh drew to a dramatic close today, with a federal prosecutor calling the Oklahoma City bombing defendant a "domestic terrorist" guilty of "a crime of ghastly proportions" and the defense portraying him as the unwitting victim of an overzealous investigation and the treachery of his friends.

The contrasting views of McVeigh, a 29-year-old decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, came as prosecutors and defense lawyers presented more than seven hours of closing arguments in a case that began with jury selection just nine weeks ago. McVeigh could face the death penalty if found guilty of the conspiracy and murder charges to which he has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch told jurors that he will instruct them on the principles of law Friday morning before giving them the case. The jury is sequestered as of tonight and will deliberate through the weekend.

Prosecutor Larry Mackey took nearly 3 1/2 hours to meticulously recap for the jurors the government's contention that McVeigh, in an uncontrollable rage against the federal government, acted with malicious premeditation when he detonated a 4,000-pound truck bomb on April 19, 1995, in front of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

"Who could do such a thing? Who could do such a thing?" Mackey asked jurors. "Based on the evidence, the answer is clear: Timothy McVeigh did it."

Referring to some of McVeigh's virulent anti-government writings, Mackey concluded by pointedly telling jurors, "The law enforcement officers who died were not treasonous officials . . . or `cowardice bastards.' The credit union employees who disappeared were not tyrants whose blood had to be spilled. And certainly the 19 children who died were not the storm troopers McVeigh said must die because of their association with the evil empire.

"In fact, they were bosses and secretaries, they were blacks and whites, they were mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. They were a community. So who are the real patriots and who is the traitor?"

But Stephen Jones and Robert Nigh Jr., McVeigh's lead attorneys, portrayed McVeigh as the victim of a rush to judgment by a federal government desperate to solve the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil and by a public overwhelmed by sympathy for the victims of the bombing.

"The emotion is a twin emotion," Jones said. "On one hand what has been evoked has been sympathy for the victims, and on the other hand repugnance" for McVeigh's far-right political philosophy.

"The evidence demonstrates tragically that what law enforcement did was terribly, terribly wrong," Nigh said. "Instead of an objective investigation of the case, the federal law enforcement officials involved decided the case and then jammed the evidence and witnesses to fit the decision."

McVeigh's attorneys attempted during the trial to cast doubt on the government's case by suggesting that evidence was tainted by sloppy FBI lab work and that key witnesses had changed their stories to fit the prosecution's version of events.

The government spent the entire morning presenting its summation. Looking directly at the jury, and speaking in a low, soothing voice to a packed federal courtroom, Mackey advised jurors that they did not have to agree with all of the government's case, but should look at its evidence as a "smorgasbord" from which to "pick and choose" in order to convict McVeigh.

He said a "wall of evidence" constructed "brick by brick, witness by witness," showed that McVeigh rented the Ryder truck that blew up in Oklahoma City, described to friends and family members his elaborate plans for the bombing, and stole and purchased the materials used to make the ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil bomb. His co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, who has also pleaded not guilty, will be tried separately at a later date.

"What you learn from all this evidence is that Timothy McVeigh either bombed the Murrah building and killed all those people," said Mackey, "or he is the unluckiest man in the world."

"Timothy McVeigh is a domestic terrorist," Mackey said. "This is not a prosecution of Timothy McVeigh for his political views. This is the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh for what he did. . . . He committed murder."

While McVeigh entered the courtroom today smiling and conversing animatedly with his attorneys, he looked pale and tired. He sat with his hands clasped tightly in front of his face, betraying no emotion as Mackey recapitulated the case prosecutors presented over 18 days.

Survivors of the blast and relatives of the victims, on the other hand, quietly wept in the courtroom as Mackey described the devastation of April 19, 1995. At least 35 family members packed three rows of seats, and some said they had stood in line since 4 a.m. to ensure they would get a place.

Mackey reiterated the prosecution's contention that McVeigh, aiming to avenge the government's April 19, 1993, assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., and hoping to spark a general uprising against the federal government, planned for six months before detonating the Ryder truck bomb in Oklahoma City.

"But the only blood that flowed in the streets was the blood that Timothy McVeigh shed," Mackey said. The crime, he argued, was inspired by an eerily similar fictional bombing of FBI headquarters in Washington from the racist and antisemitic novel "The Turner Diaries" that McVeigh pressed on family members and friends over a seven-year period. "Timothy McVeigh was fixated on `The Turner Diaries,' " Mackey said.

Mackey also fell back on one of the government's most effective trial tools -- testimony from survivors of the explosion, who often wept on the witness stand as they recounted the horror. The prosecutor reminded the jurors in detail of that emotionally powerful testimony by government employees who survived the explosion and by mothers who lost their infants as the building collapsed onto the second-floor day-care center where 15 of the children died.

"From every corner of America people responded," Mackey said. "Rescuers from across the country descended on Oklahoma City. America was in shock. People needed help. One man, this man, headed in the opposite direction, out of town."

Jones, leading off the defense's afternoon-long response, leveled a withering attack on the government's star witnesses, McVeigh's former Army roommate Michael Fortier and his wife, Lori, who had testified that McVeigh had repeatedly talked about bombing the Murrah building and had even cased it. Spending the entire first hour of his closing argument on the Fortiers and using mammoth charts to underscore what he said were their inconsistent statements, Jones said the Fortiers, with their history of drug use, were so flawed "you would not extend them credit, you would not want them in your home . . . you would ignore them."

"Why not do what [lead prosecutor] Joseph Hartzler recommended," said Jones, referring to the prosecution's statement that the case did not hinge on the Fortiers' testimony. "They're not important to the case. Put everything they said aside. Forget them."

Referring to the deal Michael Fortier struck with prosecutors to testify in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges that carry a maximum 23-year sentence, Jones said: "Who benefited? What he was aiming for was a complete walkaway so he could go out and hit the talk show circuit, make that cool mil' and tell that story."

"He didn't know anything about Oklahoma City," Jones continued. "He read about it in the newspapers. He saw an opportunity to live on easy street."

Noting that Michael Fortier will not be sentenced until after the McVeigh trial and that his sentence will depend on his performance at trial, Jones said: "Why are they holding the Sword of Damocles over his head? Because they don't believe him and maybe you shouldn't believe him either."

Nigh then took on the FBI laboratory and the forensic testing it conducted on key pieces of evidence that allegedly linked McVeigh to the explosive materials used in the bombing.

"The FBI was like a ship without a rudder, without a sail and without a captain," said Nigh, referring to testimony of sloppy evidence handling procedures in its crime lab.

FBI investigators, Nigh added, found no traces of explosives on McVeigh's knife despite allegations he used the knife to cut the detonator cord connected to the ammonium nitrate packed into the back of the Ryder truck. Nor did they find any traces of the fertilizer on his clothing or hands.

"Where's the ammonium nitrate on Tim McVeigh?" Nigh asked.

The competing closing arguments today were watched with rapt attention by the jury of seven men and five women, plus six alternates. The jury is overwhelmingly white and ranges in age from the twenties to the seventies, with occupations such as nurse, landscaper and teacher represented. Throughout the 21 days of testimony, jurors have appeared engaged and emotionally involved, with some members of the panel openly weeping during the testimony of bombing victims.

The trial was moved to Denver last year after Judge Matsch decided the defendants had been so demonized in Oklahoma that they could not get a fair trial anywhere in the state.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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