Dressed in military-style khaki, convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy James McVeigh was formally sentenced to death on Thursday after cryptically telling the court that “our government … teaches the whole people by its example.”
Showing no remorse and making no plea for mercy, the 29-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran at times grinned and joked with members of his defense team during the 10-minute sentencing hearing.
In his brief statement, the first time he had spoken at any length in court, McVeigh apparently was trying to express his rage over the FBI’s handling of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco in 1993, a legal expert said. A fire erupted as authorities assaulted the compound on April 19, 1993, killing nearly 80 members of the religious sect.
Defense lawyers had argued during McVeigh’s trial earlier this summer that he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City to retaliate against the government for Waco. The Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the fiery end of the Waco siege.
In June, a jury recommended McVeigh receive death by lethal injection after the panel convicted him of murder and conspiracy in the federal building bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children.
Standing at a lectern Thursday to make his statement before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch, McVeigh quoted in a low halting voice from a 1928 dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the case of Olmstead vs. United States.
As relatives of people killed by the Oklahoma City bomb strained to hear, McVeigh, flanked by guards, declared: “If the court please, I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis … to speak for me. He wrote: ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”’ Brandeis wrote nearly the same words 69 years ago in his dissent from the majority opinion of the Supreme Court that upheld the federal government’s use of wiretaps in criminal investigations.
McVeigh recited only a portion of Brandeis’ opinion. In it, Brandeis also wrote: “If the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal would bring terrible retribution.”
Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer and legal analyst, said he believes McVeigh was trying to tell the court that the Oklahoma City bombing would not have happened if the FBI had not assaulted the Branch Davidian compound two years earlier.
While the federal government steadfastly denies the accusations, some believe the Mount Carmel blaze was started when agents rammed the structure with armored vehicles and lobbed tear gas inside.
“McVeigh was making a point that when the government begins illegal things, anarchy follows and illegalities follow. And that is really how he felt about Waco and Oklahoma City,” Cohen said.
Joseph Hartzler, lead prosecutor in the case, said he was not moved by what McVeigh said in court.
“Do me a favor. Don’t interpret his words as those of a … statesman,” Hartzler told reporters.
McVeigh looked grim as Matsch read the sentence: “It is the judgment of the court that the defendant, Timothy James McVeigh, is sentenced to death on each of the 11 counts of the indictment.”
In another development in the court proceeding, McVeigh agreed to make public a letter he wrote in June, asking that his lead attorney, Stephen Jones, be removed from the case during the appeal process.
In his June 22 letter to Matsch, McVeigh said, “It has been represented to me that you are aware of the problems and difficulties I have had with my appointed counsel.”
McVeigh wrote that he would rather have attorneys Robert Nigh Jr., Richard Burr and Randall Coyne represent him in his fight to be spared the death penalty.
It was obvious in court Thursday that all was not well between Jones and McVeigh. There was no customary handshake between the two men. And when McVeigh entered the courtroom he passed by Jones without saying a word, sitting, instead, between Nigh and Burr.
Jones, at a news conference after the sentencing, refused to comment on the reported tension between him and McVeigh, and he did not elaborate on what problems, if any, they have had in the past.
“It is simply not appropriate for me to comment on those matters,” Jones said after filing a formal appeal Thursday with the 10th Court of Criminal Appeals in Denver.
Roy Sells, who lost his wife, Lee, in the bombing, said he was glad McVeigh’s criminal trial was finally complete.
Charles Tomlin said the pain of losing a son in the Oklahoma City blast did not ease as he watched Matsch sentence McVeigh.
“It was kind of sad to see a guy be sentenced to die,” Tomlin said outside the courtroom. “I hope we can find a way so that this will never happen again - to anybody.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FINAL WORDS Timothy McVeigh’s statement before he was formally sentenced to death Thursday: If the court please, I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” That’s all I have.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.