June 5, 1997 in Nation/World

Aftershocks As Timothy Mcveigh Stared Coolly Ahead, A Litany Of Sadness Filled The Courtroom In The Oklahoma City Bombing Trial.

Richard A. Serrano Los Angeles Times
 

Six jurors cried. An elderly woman in the front row choked and fought for great gasps of air. Prosecutors bowed their heads; Patrick Ryan, the U.S. attorney from Oklahoma City, kept wiping at his right eye.

Defense attorneys stared vacantly. Reporters sunk their faces low into their notebooks. Visitors, most of them victims themselves, turned red with tears. Even Judge Richard P. Matsch was affected; he seldom looked at those testifying just a few feet away on his witness stand.

Timothy McVeigh, however, did not cry.

He did not flinch, he did not fidget on the first day of proceedings that will determine if he is to be put to death.

As the penalty phase in McVeigh’s capital murder trial opened Wednesday, the judge was mindful of the raw, jagged, hurtful emotions that will be exposed in his courtroom this week.

He has ordered that dignified demeanor be observed. He has announced there will be additional recesses to allow jurors, attorneys and spectators time to compose themselves. And he has disallowed some of the government’s more tragic testimony and evidence, declaring that he will not turn the sentencing of the 29-year-old former Army tank gunner into a public “lynching.”

“We’re not here to seek revenge on Timothy McVeigh,” Matsch said. “We’re here to consider these lives and what happened to these people. And, as you’ll see later, his life.”

Probably by sometime next week, after defense attorneys have had a chance to rebut the government and show mitigating factors about their client, the jury of seven men and five women will retire once again to deliberate.

This week the jury found McVeigh guilty of the worst domestic terrorist act in American history. The Oklahoma city bombing killed 168 people, including eight federal law enforcement officers, and injured more than 500 others.

Next the jurors must reach a consensus on how McVeigh should be punished. To a person, they must all agree on whether he deserves death. If they cannot reach that unanimous verdict, then McVeigh will spend the rest of his life in prison with no parole.

To prosecutors, death is the proper answer.

“It is the only verdict that justly fits the crime,” Ryan told the jurors.

The core of prosecution testimony is coming from bombing victims, family members, rescue workers, doctors and counselors - all describing how the explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which ended America’s belief in its own invincibility from terrorism, also heart-wrenchingly affected thousands of individual lives.

Ryan described the vast swath of death that reverberated from the corner of Fifth and Harvey streets in downtown Oklahoma City.

“The defendant killed many husbands,” he said, giving the tiniest of eulogies to those lost forever on April 19, 1995.

“The defendant killed many wives,” he said. “The defendant killed many grandchildren. The defendant killed many grandparents.”

Some women were pregnant. “The defendant killed three unborn children.”

He said a 10-year-old boy will read a statement he wrote about losing his mother. “The defendant killed many mothers,” Ryan said.

When he sat down, and the jury was excused for its first break, McVeigh’s lead attorney, Stephen Jones, quietly walked over and commended Ryan on his moving remarks.

Then it was the victims’ turn to speak.

Even before then, Joseph Hartzler, the chief prosecutor, had warned the victims stuffed into the back rows to grit their teeth and bite their tongues. “On the day of the verdict, those were tears of joy,” he told them. “This is going to be a lot tougher.”

Pamela Whicher took the stand and talked about the loss of her husband, Alan, a Secret Service agent.

Their son, Ryan, pretends his father is on a business trip, she said. Once he started to grow a beard, he slammed his fist and said, “Well, who’s going to teach me how to shave it?”

Their daughter, Melinda, wrote a letter in high school about how “I never knew such a dark horrible place existed and I’m clawing my way out the best I can.”

“She has learned to hate,” Pamela Whicher said. “Which is a horrible thing to hear coming from your 16-year-old baby.”

April 19 is David Klaus’ wedding anniversary. It also became the day he lost his only daughter, Kimberly Ruth Burgess. Now he and his wife celebrate their marriage on a different date, he testified.

So much has changed. He has lost 25 pounds. He suffered hepatitis, pneumonia and two episodes of bronchitis. Currently he is being treated for depression.

“I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in two years,” he said. “I just feel so much older. There is just this huge heart that is never going to get filled up now.”

Alan A. Prokop, an Oklahoma City police officer, testified about rushing to the exploded Murrah structure. Inside, he said, “it was strangely quiet. Except for the moans and cries in the building.”

Near an elevator shaft he spotted a woman’s hand waving back and forth, the rest of the body trapped under the rubble. He held the hand.

“The hand was warm,” he said. “She was clutching my hand. I held it and squeezed and I could hear muffled moans.”

Water was filling the area. The woman feared she was drowning. Then Prokop and other rescuers realized it wasn’t water at all. It was blood.

“Her hand began to get still and very cold,” he said. “I checked for her pulse and there was none.”

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