Ruth Hightower started sobbing on the witness stand before she was even asked the first question about her daughter’s death in the Oklahoma City bombing. Michael Lenz said that shortly after his wife and unborn son perished in the blast, he stuck a pistol in his mouth and contemplated pulling the trigger. Surgeon James Sullivan’s voice trembled as he recounted using a pocket knife to finish amputating the leg of a young woman pinned in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
For the second day in a row, federal jurors openly wept in court as the government moved swiftly toward concluding its emotionally driven effort to have Timothy J. McVeigh executed for blowing up the Murrah building.
On Monday, McVeigh, 29, was convicted on all 11 counts of conspiracy and murder in the April 19, 1995, blast, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500.
Now the same jury must decide in this penalty phase whether McVeigh should be sentenced to death by lethal injection or spend his life in prison.
Mothers, sisters, husbands and sons took the stand again Thursday - voices quivering and tears flowing - to describe how the horror of the bombing still dominates their daily lives more than two years later.
Sullivan, a University of Oklahoma orthopedic surgeon, told the jury he still has trouble dealing with the nightmarish events following the blast,, when he had to amputate Daina Bradley’s right leg without anesthesia to free her from the wreckage. Shortly after he arrived at the chaotic scene on April 19, he said, a bomb scare drove rescue workers from the building.
“She screamed, ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! I’m going to die,” he recalled, his voice choking up. “It was gut-wrenching.”
Sullivan said he returned with his surgical implements 45 minutes later and had to lie on Bradley’s stomach to sever her leg because space was so tight. The hour-long operation eventually dulled and broke all his scalpels, and he was forced to use a pocket knife from his back pocket to finish the job. Rescue workers were then able to extricate Bradley, who lost her mother and two children that day. Sullivan told jurors his greatest fear was that “she would bleed to death.”
Jury experts say that despite two days of heartbreaking testimony that reduced many jury members to tears, it is impossible to predict whether the panel will go along with the government’s request for the death penalty.
Until now, McVeigh has been a remote figure at his trial, oddly jocular out of the view of the jurors and stone-faced when the panel is in court. But in the next few days, the defense plans to call McVeigh’s father, his sister and former Army supervisors, which might give the jury an opportunity to connect with the convicted bomber on a personal level.
In a setback to the government Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch reversed himself and refused to allow a 9-year-old boy to testify on the loss of his mother, saying his testimony would be “inflammatory” because of his “age and innocence.” The boy, Clint Seidl has gone on national television in the past few days, advocating that McVeigh be put to death.
Still, the jurors seemed greatly affected by those who did make it to the stand Thursday. Several women on the panel clutched tissues and sobbed throughout the day. One male juror looked down during much of the compelling testimony. Another cried often and shook his head.
And all looked grim when a weeping Hightower told her harrowing tale of driving from Fort Worth, Texas, to Oklahoma City on April 20 to look for her youngest child, Anita, 27. After a few days, the 60-year-old woman said, she convinced rescue workers to search her daughter’s office across the street from the Murrah building. Anita Hightower’s body was found there in the basement of the building.
Michael Lenz described how the day before the blast, he and his wife Carrie, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration, had seen sonogram images indentifying their first child as a boy. He said they named the boy for him on the spot.
“In one fell swoop I went from being a husband and daddy to realizing that it was all gone,” he said. “There is no one coming home, nobody in the driveway. I lost everything. There’s nothing more dangerous than a man that has no reason to live.”
Prosecutors must demonstrate that there are legally defined “aggravating” circumstances of the crime to warrant the death penalty under a relatively new federal statute. Among those that the government has set out to prove this week are McVeigh’s premeditation, the risk he knowingly caused others, and the emotional and physical harm he inflicted on those who lived.
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