June 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Mcveigh Gets Death Jury Condemns Bomber To Death By Lethal Injection

Tom Kenworthy And Lois Romano The Washington Post
 

A federal jury Friday condemned Timothy J. McVeigh to death for the April 19, 1995, bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, injured hundreds more, and shattered a complacent nation’s belief that the face of random political terror could never be American.

McVeigh, sitting with his elbows on the defense table and his hands clasped in front of his face, appeared absolutely unshaken by U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch’s announcement of the jury’s recommendation that McVeigh die.

The 29-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran mouthed the words “it’s all right” to his family sitting near the front of the courtroom, and gave a nod and a small wave of his fingers to the seven-man, five-woman jury as marshals escorted him from the courtroom.

Matsch will formally sentence McVeigh to death by lethal injection at a later date.

McVeigh’s younger sister and close confidante, Jennifer, cried as Matsch said to the hushed courtroom, “The jury recommends by unanimous vote that the defendant Timothy J. McVeigh shall be sentenced to death.” McVeigh’s father, William McVeigh, slumped in his seat, and his mother, Mildred Frazer, showed no outward emotion until afterward, when she wept as lawyers hugged and consoled her.

McVeigh’s lead defense counsel, Stephen Jones, said even before the verdict was read that the case would be appealed. McVeigh was tried under a 1994 federal anti-terrorism statute that has yet to be tested at the Supreme Court. His was the first case under that statute to proceed to sentencing.

Outside the federal courthouse, when word filtered out to the street where several hundred spectators eagerly awaited the sentencing decision, the reaction was more subdued than when McVeigh was convicted June 2 of using a truck bomb to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Friday’s recommendation capped an 11-week trial that tested the government’s commitment to deal swiftly and resolutely with acts of anti-government terror and its early promise of showing no mercy toward those accused of the worst act of mass murder in American history.

The sentence is also a prelude to the second act of the bombing’s legal drama, the upcoming trial of McVeigh’s co-defendant Terry L. Nichols, who likely will be tried early in the fall before a new jury.

Emerging from the courthouse, chief prosecutor Joseph H. Hartzler said: “We’re pleased the system worked and justice prevailed. But the verdict doesn’t diminish the great sadness that occurred in Oklahoma City two years ago. Our only hope is that the verdict will go some way to preventing such a terrible, drastic crime from ever occurring again.”

With his fellow defense attorneys arrayed behind him, Jones read a prepared statement. “The jury has spoken and their verdict is entitled to respect, and all Americans should accord it that respect until such time, if ever, it is overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction,” Jones said. “God save the United States of America and God save this honorable court.”

Matsch on Friday strongly suggested that jurors be prudent in their comments to the news media. “What you said to each other in that jury room is a matter that I suggest you should keep among yourselves,” he said. “You decided this as a group of 12, no one of you can change it, and therefore you don’t have to explain it to anyone. I can’t order you not to talk … but I think all of you have respect for each other, and I would think about that before answering any questions.”

In returning a recommendation of death after 11 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury charged with weighing McVeigh’s fate accepted the government argument that the bombing and the deaths of so many innocent men, women and children was precisely the kind of heinous crime that Congress had in mind when it expanded the federal death penalty in 1988, and again in 1994.

The decision that McVeigh should die came 11 days after the same jury found him guilty of all 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction.

For all the pretrial hype generated by McVeigh’s 14-lawyer defense team, the former Army sergeant’s attorneys were never a match for the impeccably prepared squadron of government prosecutors assembled by the Justice Department.

McVeigh, who pleaded not guilty, never took the stand in his own defense, and his attorneys never offered an alibi or a plausible alternative theory to the one presented by the government.

In the end, after suggesting during the trial that a mystery bomber may have destroyed the building, McVeigh’s attorneys tried to persuade the jury to spare his life by admitting his involvement but maintaining it was a political crime.

“Well, we’re human and we make mistakes. It’s nothing that you look back on and kick yourself about,” said Robert Nigh, a McVeigh attorney, on Friday.


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