The names of the dead - 168 of them - tolled one by one in a hushed courtroom here Thursday as attorneys in the Oklahoma City bombing case alternately portrayed Timothy McVeigh as a hate-filled child-killer and as an innocent victim of misidentification.
Both the prosecution and the defense immediately invoked the victims in their opening statements at the first trial in connection with the April 19, 1995, federal building blast, the worst incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
From his wheelchair, prosecutor Joseph Hartzler extended his hand - as if waving to a child - as he described the windows of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building’s daycare center, where the children within “would press their hands and faces to the building to say goodbye” to their families each morning.
In describing their last goodbyes, he mentioned three of those children by name - Tevin Garrett and brothers Aaron and Elijah Coverdale - all of whom died shortly after having been dropped off at the day-care center when the building blew apart at 9:02 a.m. The blast killed a total of 19 children.
But when it was defense attorney Stephen Jones’ turn to speak, he did Hartzler one better. As victims’ relatives gasped softly and swiped at reddened eyes with the backs of their hands, Jones read the name of each person who had died in the explosion, intoning their names slowly and reverentially into the deepening silence.
Before him, the seven women and five men of the jury sat stone-faced.
Nor did McVeigh show any emotion as Jones described those 168 deaths as an unimaginable tragedy - one that, for Oklahomans such as himself, “is the event by which we measure time.”
But his client, Jones said, indicating the thin-faced defendant with the deep-set eyes and now-familiar brush cut, is not responsible for their deaths.
McVeigh, 29, who greeted the jury with a terse “Morning,” is charged, along with Terry Lynn Nichols, with murder and conspiracy in the blast, which also injured more than 500 and caused many millions of dollars in damage. Nichols will be tried separately after McVeigh’s trial is over.
The government contends McVeigh is the man who parked a Ryder rental truck, filled with plastic barrels containing two tons of a deadly mixture of fertilizer and fuel oil, in front of the nine-story building, then set a fuse before escaping to a newly purchased Mercury Marquis he had parked nearby days earlier.
McVeigh bombed the building, said Hartzler, because of his hatred of the federal government, an antipathy the prosecutor said is demonstrated by McVeigh’s enthusiasm for “The Turner Diaries,” a reactionary bible that describes the fictional destruction of FBI headquarters in Washington with a fertilizer and fuel-oil truck bomb.
“We’re prosecuting him because his hatred boiled over into violence,” Hartzler said, “and that violence ended the lives of men, women and children.”
Jones agreed, in his own opening statement, that McVeigh was disenchanted with the government. And, he added, much of McVeigh’s reading material “is virulent and caustic.”
But the book has sold 200,000 copies, Jones said. “It is no more a blueprint to blow up the federal building than Frederick Forsyth’s novel ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is a blueprint to assassinate the president of France,” Jones said.
But Hartzler contended the book was exactly that. After his initial appeal to jurors’ emotions, he gave a day-by-day outline of the week before the blast - an outline full of circumstantial evidence that he said would prove McVeigh’s guilt.
“No single witness is going to tell the whole sad story,” he said. “The pieces will be like bricks. … It will be like building a brick wall.”
Indirectly, Hartzler was referring to the central weakness in the government’s case: No one actually saw McVeigh detonate the bomb.
But the prosecutor dealt with that problem early and often in his statement, touching on several witnesses who have identified McVeigh in circumstances surrounding the bombing and on others who have talked of a man named Robert Kling who rented the Ryder truck.
Testimony by forensic handwriting experts - which the defense sought unsuccessfully to block in a pretrial motion - will show that McVeigh’s and Kling’s handwriting are identical, Hartzler said.
Witnesses also will testify that Robert Kling picked up the Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan., two days before the bombing, Hartzler said. That same day, he said, Timothy McVeigh showed up in a Ryder truck at Junction City’s Dreamland Hotel, where he had been staying.
“Robert Kling is really Tim McVeigh,” he said.
Hartzler directly addressed two other areas in which the government is viewed as vulnerable to defense attacks: the recent criticisms of the FBI crime lab, which analyzed some evidence in the case, and the fact that McVeigh’s sister, Jennifer, and friends Michael and Lori Fortier will testify for the government in exchange for immunity or less-serious charges concerning their alleged knowledge of the bombing plot.
Much of the Fortiers’ testimony will be corroborated by that of other witnesses, Hartzler said.
He said the FBI agent who examined explosives residue on the clothing McVeigh wore the day of the bombing did not work in the division of the crime lab recently criticized in a Justice Department investigation. A British explosives expert, who has testified in Irish Republican Army bombing cases, will corroborate the FBI lab findings, he said.
Hartzler’s attempts to defuse the defense strategy didn’t deter Jones from hitting hard at those same points. In his opening statement, Jones castigated the Fortiers as people likely to place self-interest before accurate testimony.
And he said the crime-lab problems cannot be brushed away by various experts.
McVeigh’s clothing and other evidence were contaminated before they ever were analyzed, Jones said, by virtue of being stored in oft-used paper and canvas bags in the Noble County Jail in Oklahoma. Before authorities even had determined any connection between him and the bombing, McVeigh was arrested 1-1/2 hours after it occurred and was held at that jail for driving a car without a license plate.
McVeigh still was in the Noble jail when authorities linked Kling’s name to the Ryder truck and charged McVeigh in the bombing.
Jones reserved most of his opening statement for an intricate explanation of how the three people at Elliott’s Body Shop in Junction City, which rented the Ryder truck, could have been mistaken in identifying McVeigh as Kling.
One of those people, Tom Kessinger, revised his identification of the man he originally said was the John Doe No. 2 authorities first sought in the bombing. Kessinger now says that man came into the shop the day after the truck used in the blast was rented.
The defense will argue that any identification of McVeigh is equally faulty.