Defense lawyers place priority on moving trial

April 23, 1995|By New York Times News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The court-appointed lawyers for Timothy James McVeigh said yesterday that the intense local hostility toward their client made their first order of business getting his case moved out of town. Mr. McVeigh remained locked in isolation under extraordinarily heavy security in a federal prison 25 miles to the west.

"I can't think of a case that could use a change of venue more than this one, can you?" said one of Mr. McVeigh's lawyers, John W. Coyle, who at the time of the bombing was in a fifth-floor courtroom that was damaged by a crashing slab of stone shaken loose by the blast.

"Everyone in Oklahoma City has been substantially impacted," Mr. Coyle said. "I don't see how he could possibly get either a fair grand jury or a fair trial here."

Anger is running high. Talk radio stations and television news programs in Oklahoma City have been deluged with calls for "swift justice."

Carole Arnold, a talk show host with KTOK radio, said many callers were demanding the death penalty. Most said they would like to skip the judicial system altogether and "go right to the noose."

Mr. Coyle's assistant, Shannon Manning, said the defense team was finding its duties arduous. "This isn't something we're excited about doing," she said.

Some of the seven members of the law firm, which is four blocks from the bombed building, knew victims or their families, she said. Mr. Coyle's partner had been in bankruptcy court at the time and was showered with glass.

The defense lawyers were appointed by Magistrate Ronald L. Howland under a federal law that requires at least two lawyers for a defendant in a capital case.

The magistrate appointed Susan Otto because she is the federal public defender for the western district of Oklahoma. Ms. Otto in turn suggested that Mr. Coyle be her partner because he has required experience in death penalty cases. This case is the district's first federal death penalty case.

Mr. Coyle, who said he had tried capital cases but did not consider himself a specialist, said he and Ms. Otto were recruiting lawyers from around the nation to join the defense team. They said they were looking for lawyers experienced in death penalty cases and were talking about hiring their own forensic investigators and other specialists.

"I am a firm believer that everybody is entitled to a lawyer, no matter how horrible the crime he is accused of," Mr. Coyle said.

Mr. McVeigh is being held in an isolation cell at El Reno Federal Corrections Center, a medium-security unit housing approximately 1,500 inmates. The authorities there would not comment on security measures.

Mr. Coyle said he met with Mr. McVeigh on Friday night, but he would not discuss their conversation, nor indicate how his client would plead or what the defense strategy would be. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Oklahoma City. The time and place have not been set because the federal courthouse, which is behind the bombed building, was damaged by the explosion and has been closed.

Mr. Coyle said he would file a motion for a change of venue tomorrow in U.S. District Court. He said he wanted to move the trial out of Oklahoma entirely.

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