Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Timothy McVeigh & Terry Nichols: Oklahoma Bombing

Terrorist on Trial

Defense Attorney Stephen Jones
Defense Attorney
Stephen Jones (AP)

One of the country's most expensive trials opened with a media fanfare on April 24, 1997. In many ways, it was redundant. Lead defense attorney, Stephen Jones, had represented many unpopular clients in his time, but McVeigh was probably the most loathed individual he ever defended. Valiantly, he worked against overwhelming odds and damning evidence. He would need all the powerful cross-examination skills for which he was famous. His second in command, Robert Nigh, would try valiantly to soften the images of many of the crime's perpetrators and friends.

But lead government lawyer, Joseph Hartzler, would easily overwhelm the defense team. A natural choice for the prosecution, he had previously won convictions against terrorists who plotted the bombing of a Chicago building. His reputation for building powerful cases on circumstantial evidence would be crucial — after all, no witness had actually placed McVeigh at the crime scene.

However, the defense had a mountain of facts to present.

Prosecutor Joseph Hartzler
Prosecutor Joseph
Hartzler (AP)

Judge Robert Matsch, chief district judge for the District of Colorado, is famous for running a very tight ship. Impatient with ill-prepared attorneys, Matsch is respected for his intellect and fairness. Against government protest, he decreed McVeigh and Nichols would have separate trials — to ensure they were treated fairly.

To that end, the trial was moved from Oklahoma, where public sentiment could have precluded a fair trial, to Colorado. Nonetheless, sheer numbers were on the side of the prosecution — and ultimately, justice. There were 141 witnesses for the prosecution, opposed to just 27 for the defense.

Prosecutor Hartzler's opening statement summarized the events of the day the explosion destroyed the Murrah Building, and the loss of innocent lives. He honed in on the Ryder truck and its deadly purpose: "The truck was there also to impose the will of Timothy McVeigh on the rest of America in the hopes of seeing blood flow in the streets of America."

He quoted the message on the T-shirt McVeigh wore that day:

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." And he noted McVeigh's reason for choosing the Murrah Building for his attack: "He thought the ATF agents, whom he blamed for the Waco tragedy, had their offices in that building. As it turns out, he was wrong... and second, he described that building as, quote, 'an easy target.'"

After Hartzler had laid out the motive in further detail, it was Jones's turn to speak for the defense. The thrust of Jones's argument centered on conspirators in a plot far exceeding McVeigh's involvement. Presenting the defendant as a political student of history, he claimed McVeigh was a strong supporter of the founding fathers and their beliefs.

In weeks to come, Jones would concentrate on mistaken identities and try to negate the credibility of witnesses for the prosecution — among them three people McVeigh had trusted most — his sister Jennifer and friends Lori and Michael Fortier. The Fortiers had been so close that McVeigh had been best man at their wedding. Their testimonies turned out to be the most damning.

Lori Fortier told how McVeigh had arranged cans of soup to show how he could construct a truck bomb. And she told how she had laminated a fake driver's license for McVeigh — the one in the name of Robert Kling McVeigh used to rent the Ryder truck. Hartzler reviewed the day of the bombing. Part of the exchange:

Lori Fortier: "We turned the news on early that morning... and we seen what happened... we saw that the building had been blown up, and I knew right away that it was Tim."

Hartzler: "He told you what his target was. Is that correct?"

L Fortier: "Yes"

Hartzler: "You recognize today that you could have stopped this from happening, do you not?"

L. Fortier: "Yes I do."

When Jones cross-examined the Fortiers, he showed them in the worst possible light. Their credibility was indeed suspect — after all, they had betrayed Tim in the hope that Michael Fortier would receive a lighter sentence.

Jennifer McVeigh
Jennifer McVeigh (AP)

When McVeigh's sister Jennifer appeared, she did so under the same terms as Lori Fortier. A government witness, nothing she told the court could be used against her. Robert Nigh, for the defense, attempted to humanize Tim McVeigh by asking about Tim's war record. He also tried to show Jennifer had been treated harshly when the FBI subjected her to questioning. She told Nigh that, during the questioning, she'd been told Tim was guilty and that "he was going to fry."

Jennifer McVeigh admitted under cross-examination, however, that she had not been coerced into lying — every negative thing she'd told the FBI about Tim was true.

Most damaging to McVeigh at the trial was Michael Fortier. Out of his cell for the occasion, he told in detail of events leading up to the bombing. His appearance was emotional, Fortier full of contrition. When reminded that all the Fortiers had to do to stop the carnage was to lift the phone and warn authorities, Michael agreed. Fortier's hero-worship of McVeigh was evident when he told the court: "If you don't consider what happened in Oklahoma, Tim is a good person."

That statement probably did more to diminish Fortier than Jones could ever do. On his side, Jones had FBI wiretaps and phone recordings where Fortier exposed himself as a buffoon and liar. No doubt Jones hoped to have the jury think, "Well, if this guy lied to the FBI and so many others, why believe him now?" In any case, Fortier's testimony had effectively nailed McVeigh.

Less dramatic events during the trial had already shown how phone cards consistently tracked McVeigh's location. Fingerprints on receipts proved his purchase of bomb ingredients. Explosives residue on his clothing and earplugs confirmed his involvement.

It all added up to one reality: Timothy McVeigh — for all his braggadocio and posturing as some sort of intellectual patriot — was just another contemptible felon.

The jury took three days to decide: Timothy James McVeigh had indeed bombed the Murrah Building.

For his sins, he would pay the ultimate price.

 

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