Oklahoma City Bombing Verdict

They cried often, smothering their sobs with their hands, as the prosecutor meticulously detailed how their relatives had died in the horrifying explosion. Last week and into this week, their anguish continued as they waited four long days while a jury deliberated the fate of Timothy McVeigh, the boyish 29-year-old Gulf War veteran accused of triggering the massive truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. In the end, survivors and relatives of the 168 people killed in the explosion got what they were waiting for. As McVeigh sat impassively, hands clasped tightly and pressed against one cheek, the jury foreman pronounced him guilty on all 11 charges, including eight counts of murder. Outside the Denver courthouse where the trial was held, the victims' families cheered and hugged. "This gentleman came to town to make an awful extreme political statement of murder and devastation," said victims spokesman Paul Heath, who was in the building at the time of the blast. "He is going to live with the responsibility that our laws provide."

The jury's work was not over: in a separate hearing beginning this week it still had to determine whether McVeigh's responsibility would include the death penalty for his part in the largest terrorist act ever on U.S. soil. Reaching their verdict after 23 hours of deliberation, the seven men and five women held McVeigh responsible for the murder of eight federal agents working in the building. They also found him guilty on two counts involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction and one of using an explosive. While cheers greeted the prosecution team as it emerged from the courthouse, McVeigh's attorney said he was beginning immediately to prepare for the sentencing phase. "We will be working with him tonight," said Stephen Jones. He declined to discuss McVeigh's feelings about the verdict.

The most damning evidence before the jury came from a former army buddy of McVeigh's, Michael Fortier. He testified that shortly after McVeigh acted as best man at his wedding in Las Vegas in July, 1994, he began to talk about taking "offensive action" against the government. McVeigh had reacted angrily in 1993 when federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., and more than 70 people died. According to Fortier, McVeigh saw that action - which occurred two years to the day before the Oklahoma blast - as evidence that Washington was determined to strip people of their rights. The defendant, said the witness, then set off on a mission to trigger the "second American revolution." The fact that the federal building was filled with innocent people did not deter McVeigh, testified Fortier, since they worked for the government. "Because they are part of the evil empire," he said, "they were guilty by association." Investigators say McVeigh was aided by an associate, Terry Nichols, who faces trial later this year.

The prosecution supported Fortier's testimony with forensic evidence (including traces of explosive powder on McVeigh's clothes when he was arrested) and other key witnesses. Eldon Elliot, owner of a body shop in Junction City, Kan., confidently identified McVeigh as the man who rented a six-metre-long Ryder truck used in the explosion. Other businessmen in the area described how McVeigh had tried to purchase large amounts of nitrate fertilizer, gasoline and other components of the bomb. Even his sister, Jennifer, offered damning testimony, telling the court that just before the attack McVeigh told her he was moving from the "propaganda stage" to the "action stage" in his war against Washington.

For the defence, Jones called two dozen witnesses in an attempt to convince the jury that McVeigh was innocent and that the real bomber had died in the blast. He pointed out that a leg found in the rubble has never been identified as coming from a known victim, and could have belonged to an unknown murderer. Jones, a wily 56-year-old lawyer from Enid, Okla., also heaped scorn on Fortier, claiming he had lied in order to profit by selling his story. But Jones suffered a setback when Judge Richard Matsch would not let him call witnesses to discuss theories of a larger conspiracy involving foreign and domestic terrorists.

The trial never degenerated into the circus that surrounded O.J. Simpson's drawn-out murder hearing last year. Held in Denver because of the presumed impossibility of finding an impartial jury in Oklahoma City, it proceeded at a much brisker pace than the infamous Los Angeles case, lasting just 35 days. There were no TV cameras in Matsch's courtroom, and the judge kept both sides' lawyers on a tight leash. Still, Jones did try to soften public antipathy towards his client beforehand. In a number of TV interviews, McVeigh smiled affably while Jones portrayed him as a compassionate man. But as the trial wore on, McVeigh rarely smiled. He stared blankly ahead, and only an occasional furrowed brow gave any hint of how he felt.

The trial was also about the victims. The prosecution opened and closed its arguments with emotional references to the 168 dead. Dozens of their relatives attended each day. And Jim Denning, whose two children were severely hurt in the blast, said the victims should never be forgotten. "I'm so happy for the people who lost family in the bombing," said Denning after the jury announced its verdict. "I hope that no one forgets the 168 innocent heroes of this whole story."

Maclean's June 9, 1997