June 3, 1997 in Nation/World

Redemption For A Bruised Justice System

Peter S. Canellos Boston Globe
 

This time, the system seemed to work.

After the O.J. Simpson case and a series of show trials that seemed to spin out of control, complicating rather than resolving the nation’s disputes, Monday’s decision in the Oklahoma City bombing case seems likely to achieve one of the legal system’s most important aims: closure.

By the time of the verdict, most observers appeared satisfied that the government had, indeed, captured the right man - Timothy McVeigh - and proved him guilty.

“The case was overwhelming,” said Robert Sheketoff, a Boston defense lawyer. “They had him everywhere he turned. They had him on a McDonald’s video camera. It just didn’t stop. The only surprise was that the jury was out as long as it was.”

An unsurprising verdict, whether guilty or not, represents a victory for the system, a reason for people to have confidence in the nation’s judicial procedures, legal specialists said.

This time, they said, that system functioned like a well-oiled machine, featuring a judge who brooked no distractions, a prosecution that presented the evidence rapidly and with a clear narrative flow, and a defense that, despite offering some wild theories in pretrial interviews, stuck mostly to the facts.

“This case was done quickly, neatly and with obviously overwhelming evidence,” said Norman Zalkind, a Boston defense lawyer. “It was a slam dunk.”

It didn’t seem that way two years ago in the first harried, grief-stricken hours after the bombing when President Clinton vowed to capture the bombers and punish them. At that time, many feared the evidence would lead to overseas terrorists.

McVeigh, however, was arrested within hours of the bombing and named as a suspect within two days.

Then, as federal prosecutors began building a case, the Simpson criminal verdict, coming after unsuccessful prosecutions in cases involving the police beating of Rodney King, the Menendez brothers, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, seemed to cast doubt on whether a conviction could be obtained in a show trial.

Zalkind, who believes there was always enough evidence to prove McVeigh guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, said, “The only reason anyone took a step back was because of O.J. Simpson. They thought, ‘Maybe McVeigh will have a miracle verdict.”’

In fact, the McVeigh trial revealed a very different face of the criminal justice system, specialists said.

The trial was conducted in federal court, where procedures are widely considered more favorable to the prosecution than those of state courts. For instance, the jury pool is larger, diminishing the chances that any jury could take on one personality.

“There’s a big difference between a downtown Denver jury pool and a jury pool that goes out” into the countryside for its mix, said Zalkind.

Moreover, the Justice Department, which prosecuted the case, can bring to bear far more resources and expertise than a district attorney’s office. Its rate of convictions is higher, as well.

“You had skilled, experienced prosecutors, working with skilled, experienced investigators, working with unlimited resources,” Sheketoff said.

Before the trial, the defense seemed intent on a Simpson-like strategy of raising doubts about the investigators who prepared the scientific evidence. The FBI crime lab, which is under investigation for possibly corrupting evidence, handled most of the samples for the bombing trial.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh’s lead attorney, attempted to introduce an investigative report detailing problems in the crime lab, but Judge Richard Matsch ruled it out, contending the defense had to concentrate only on the evidence presented.

“Judge Matsch did a magnificent job in ruling on the bringing in of the report on the FBI crime lab,” said Weldon Kennedy, chief FBI investigator for the case, appearing on ABC-TV. “This is a trial of Timothy McVeigh, not the FBI.”

Matsch also clamped down on media access, promising to allow no distractions.

The prosecution seemed only too happy to proceed at Matsch’s fast pace, presenting 26 witnesses in one morning alone.

Moreover, specialists said, lead prosecutor Joseph Hartzler appeared to have learned from the Simpson case and others, which dragged on so long that jurors seemed to get distracted by tangential issues, specialists said.

Hartzler interlaced witness testimony and scientific evidence so that each reinforced the other. For example, testimony by repair-shop employees identifying McVeigh as the man who rented the Ryder truck involved in the bombing was reinforced by security-camera footage of McVeigh in a McDonald’s near the repair shop within minutes of the rental.

Likewise, evidence of bomb residue on McVeigh’s belongings was accompanied by testimony from his friend Lori Fortier, explaining how McVeigh told her how to make a bomb.

Before the case began, many survivors and relatives of victims explained they were dreading the trial, believing in McVeigh’s guilt but worrying that the case would fall apart and he would go free.

Monday’s verdict quelled such fears. Some victims even praised the fact that McVeigh, who is indigent, got a millionaire’s defense. Jones’s team included more than a dozen attorneys and rang up bills approaching $10 million.

“I am very proud of our Constitution, which has shown it can provide a trial that is appropriate even for McVeigh,” bombing survivor Paul Heath told Reuters. “We don’t live in a vigilante society, and this trial certainly represents a civilized nation seeking justice.”


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