Tears were shed for Timothy McVeigh on Friday as lawyers for the convicted mass murderer brought in former neighbors and fellow soldiers in an attempt to save McVeigh’s life.
John J. McDermott, who with his wife, Elizabeth, lived next door to the McVeigh family in Pendleton, N.Y., from 1977 to 1984, lost his composure when defense lawyer Richard Burr asked how he felt about McVeigh.
“I liked him,” McDermott began. “I trusted him.” Then, his face reddened, tears welled and his voice cracked.
“I can’t imagine him doing anything like this,” he declared.
At the defense table, McVeigh, for the first time in the 11-week trial, showed emotion other than a laugh or smile. As McDermott’s voice faded in the strain of his tears, McVeigh reddened and pressed his folded hands against his mouth.
McDermott was one of six witnesses the defense called Friday afternoon. As many as 25 to 30 more are expected to be called next week before the jury begins deliberating on whether to sentence McVeigh, 29, to death or to life in prison without parole.
Sitting with spectators in the front of the courtroom, only a few feet from McVeigh, was his sister, Jennifer, who testified during the trial for the prosecution. They exchanged smiles when she sat down.
Along with the McDermotts, the defense called four men who met McVeigh in the Army, in an attempt to present snapshots of McVeigh from as far back as 1977, when he was 9 years old.
In his opening statement to the jury, Burr tried to portray McVeigh as an average kid with a wry sense of humor who was voted most talkative in his senior year of high school.
After graduation, McVeigh joined the U.S. Army where he became a highly regarded soldier and expert marksman, ultimately earning sergeant’s stripes and a Bronze Star for action during the Persian Gulf War.
Burr urged jurors to consider that McVeigh “could be your brother. He could be your son. He could be your grandson.”
McVeigh, Burr said, “loved this country. He is like any of us and he is in the middle of this and there is violence at both ends.”
He acknowledged the emotional and gripping testimony of victims and survivors during the prosecution’s presentation and urged jurors to “step back” from the “raw feeling … that made you cringe, that made you angry.”
“The truth of this suffering … is one of the truths you have to consider,” Burr said. “We ask you to consider whether it is the only truth that must be considered.
“There is violence,” he said. “There is much death. There is tremendous suffering. There is also a person at the center who you will not be able to dismiss easily as a demon.”
Burr said the witnesses would include McVeigh’s teachers, co-workers, family members and military colleagues, and would be called to present “the reality of Tim McVeigh.”
“It would be quite understandable to think Mr. McVeigh is a demon, is a monster,” Burr said. “Set that aside and listen and learn who Tim McVeigh is. There will be no complete answer.”
The defense, Burr said, would present witnesses to help the jury see McVeigh “as if you were in his shoes.” The testimony, he said, would describe how McVeigh came to be fascinated with guns, had a difficult time relating to women, was opposed to gun control and ultimately came to oppose the federal government.
Among the witnesses, Burr said, would be James Nichols, brother of McVeigh’s co-defendant, Terry Nichols, who will recount the deadly events of April 19, 1993, when FBI agents moved on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, after a 51-day standoff.
Terry Nichols, who is charged with conspiring with McVeigh to build and detonate the 4,000-pound truck bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building and killed 168 people, will be tried later this year.
On the day the Waco compound burned and killed 80 Davidians, Burr said, McVeigh and Terry Nichols were preparing to drive to Waco to “try to help this thing come to an end.”
McVeigh, Burr said, had become greatly upset with the government after the shoot-out on Feb. 28, 1993, that killed four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six Davidians.
“He thought it was wrong,” Burr said. “The fire of Waco did keep burning in Mr. McVeigh. He went on a search, a search for more informtion to learn what happened at Waco.”
That search, which included reading articles in Soldier of Fortune magazine and obtaining videotapes about the tragedy, led him to believe “that the ATF started the firing (in the shoot-out). … He came to the conclusion that the federal government had murdered people.”
McVeigh, he said, believed the federal government had “declared war on the people.”
Former Army Sgt. Jose Rodriguez, of Rossville, N.M., who was McVeigh’s team leader at Fort Riley, Kan., said McVeigh was an “outstanding” soldier. “He was a quick study. He was intelligent. He was a soldier who did a task without question and to the best of his ability.”
Burr unveiled McVeigh’s Army jacket and pointed out McVeigh’s decorations, including his sergeant’s stripes that were awarded, Rodriguez said, because “he performed above his peers.”
Another Army buddy, Royal Witcher, said he and McVeigh lived for several months in a house in Herington, Kan., near Fort Riley. “I looked up to him,” Witcher said. “He was a good person, very approachable. If you had a problem, you could talk to him about it. He was a good listener.”
Jurors were shown a photograph of McVeigh’s bedroom in the house and Burr pointed out that the sheets on the bed were decorated with the cartoon cat character Garfield dressed in military fatigues.
Across the courtroom, McVeigh smiled.
McDermott’s wife, Elizabeth, recalled how McVeigh, when he was a teenager, was a baby-sitter for her two children.
Asked by defense attorney Burr how she felt about McVeigh, she said, “I love Tim. I think he’s - I love Tim.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FRIDAY’S DEVELOPMENTS Prosecution rests: Prosecutors rested their death- penalty case after calling 38 witnesses over 2-1/2 days, offering jurors a wrenching look at the bombing after math. Relatives, often in tears, told of empty lives without their loved ones. Rescuers told of finding body parts, and of living with the nightmares of those they couldn’t save. Other witnesses showed jurors horrific pictures of the injuries suffered by the victims. Waco siege: Timothy McVeigh’s attorney, Richard Burr, didn’t admit McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, but he urged jurors to view it in the context of McVeigh’s life and influences - particularly the government’s deadly siege at Waco. “You will hear that the fire of Waco did keep burning in Mr. McVeigh. He is at the middle of this, and there is violence at both ends.” Old friends: McVeigh smiled broadly when former Army colleagues testified about his military service. He chuckled when boyhood neighbor Jan McDermott recalled how a young McVeigh would “eat us out of house and home.” And former Army roommate Royal Witcher said McVeigh’s bed was made with sheets decorated with the cartoon character Garfield. Emotional finale: The final witness in the prosecution’s penalty case was a tearful father who testified it was hard for him to explain to his little boy why his mother was gone. “I have to look for answers and it’s tough sometimes,” said Glenn Seidl, whose wife - the mother of now-9-year-old Clint Seidl - was killed in the blast. “I deal with Clint’s hurt all the time. We try to live a normal life, but this isn’t a normal situation,” He then read a message from his son that read: “I miss my mom.” What’s next: The defense called six witnesses Friday, and is expected to continue putting character witnesses on the stand Monday. - Associated Press