When federal prosecutor Joseph Hartzler delivers his opening statement today in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, he probably won’t be standing at the lectern. He will be in a wheelchair, because of multiple sclerosis.
Many MS patients are urged to avoid stress, and taking on one of the biggest cases in U.S. history has worried some of those close to Hartzler. But he has shrugged off such concerns.
“I am defined by my strengths,” the 46-year-old Hartzler said in a speech at an MS fund-raiser in Tulsa, Okla., last year. He has declined interview requests since shortly after his appointment to the case.
Although Hartzler is able to raise himself using metal canes or a desk to lean on, he seldom stands in court. He normally relies on a wheelchair in the cramped confines of the courtroom. He travels to and from court on an electric scooter.
Colleagues say his condition has remained stable since he took the bombing case, and recent studies don’t support the notion stress worsens the disease.
“If a person is functioning and successful and inclined to achieve, there’s no reason because of an MS diagnosis that they should not be given an opportunity to achieve,” said Reingold Stephen, vice president for research and medical programs for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
A slight man with stooped shoulders and a bald spot in his dark hair, Hartzler has preferred to let others take the spotlight during two years of pretrial wrangling.
Through three weeks of jury selection, he said little more than “good morning.”
But today, he will go in front of the jury box, lower the customized electronic lectern and deliver opening statements as lead prosecutor in the case.
Hartzler was selected from dozens of federal prosecutors who asked for the case. Justice Department officials wanted an experienced manager, a prosecutor familiar with bombing cases and someone who could handle the harsh spotlight.
“We knew there would be lots of press and outside interest in this trial, we looked for someone who could keep his head down and get the work done without being distracted by a media circus,” said Merrick Garland, the senior Justice Department official who chose Hartzler.
“Like many of us, he thinks this is the most important case in the country. He sought the job because the public interest outweighed his concern for his personal life.
“Another thing in his favor is that he has what people in the criminal justice system call ‘an affidavit face.’ When he says something, you believe it because there is a guileless honesty about him. He’s a person you immediately believe and trust. You want him doing the government’s affidavit.”
As a federal prosecutor in Chicago, Hartzler obtained the 1985 conviction of four Puerto Rican nationalists in a foiled bombing plot and the 1988 conviction of a Chicago judge in a corruption probe.
He had left the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a lucrative partnership at a law firm when he was diagnosed with a degenerative form of MS nearly nine years ago. The disease prompted him to rejoin the ranks of federal prosecutors in comparatively sleepy Springfield, Ill., a move he once said he made “to kind of step off the treadmill.”
In Springfield, he led a quieter life, prosecuting cases and coaching his sons’ baseball team. In 1995, he was named MS Father of the Year.
Then a bomb ripped apart the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were arrested on murder and conspiracy charges that could bring the death penalty.
“Whoever committed this crime is destined for a life in hell, and I’m just hoping that I can speed the delivery,” Hartzler said shortly after he was appointed.
Some lawyers in the case strut for the TV cameras, while others shy away from the crowds of question-shouting reporters. Hartzler often rolls by, sometimes dropping a quip about his hapless Chicago Cubs, but usually leaving the hum of his electric scooter as his only comment.
His reticence contrasts with the flamboyant, media-savvy style of his adversary, McVeigh attorney Stephen Jones. Jones has cultivated the media, holding frequent news conferences. Now he chafes under a gag order while Hartzler seems content in silence.