For survivors, a step closer to resolution Trial: Since the Oklahoma City bombing, victims have mourned and organized to ensure that the justice system doesn't overlook them.

March 13, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Martin Cash wants to be in the Denver courtroom, fixing his one eye so hard on Timothy McVeigh that the prisoner shudders under the stare. The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building took Cash's left eye and gouged a piece out of his skull, and he wants McVeigh to know it.

Cash and other survivors have long been ready for the trial of the man accused of the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history. "It will be a relief," Cash says. "It's about time."

Nearly two years have passed since a truck bomb blasted apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and horrifying the country.

Since then, the victims have mourned and they have organized to be sure the justice system doesn't overlook them. They filed suit to win a closed-circuit television feed to Oklahoma City from Denver. They've lobbied Congress on criminal statutes. They've become experts on courtroom procedure, on federal terrorism laws and on victims rights.

For the survivors, everything about the trial, set to begin March 31, is complicated -- the emotions it provokes, the location, even the seating.

The trial was moved to Denver because of the effect the emotional home-town news reports would have on an Oklahoma City jury pool. The change of venue means a round trip of 1,200 miles each time a survivor wants to be at court.

And space is a problem. About 2,000 victims are on the U.S. attorney's list. Just 12 seats are reserved for them in the Denver courtroom.

A lottery will decide who will be assigned seats for a week at a PTC time. Those selected will have the week's travel and living expenses paid from a fund that includes donations and federal funds.

12 seats for survivors

Eight of the 12 seats each week will be given to relatives of those killed. Three will go to people injured in the bombing. One is left for survivors who were not injured.

Next door, an overflow courtroom open to the public holds

another 100 seats, but only sound, not video, will be piped into that room. And no seats will be reserved.

In Oklahoma City, a closed-circuit television broadcast of the Denver proceedings will be fed to the 330-seat Federal Aviation Administration auditorium, which will be limited to survivors. The judge announced Tuesday that victims will have to call a toll-free number two days in advance to reserve a seat for the court session they wish to attend.

For Kathleen Treanor, who lost her 4-year-old daughter and her mother- and father-in-law, the restricted seating is just one of many grievances she lists as the trial approaches.

'No rights for victims'

"I guess I don't have the right to see my daughter's trial," Treanor says. "I guess I have the right to be in a lottery to see my daughter's trial. There are no rights for victims. The law is set up to protect the guilty.

"Ten years from now, people are going to look back and say, 'Look what they did to these poor people. Look at how they retraumatized these poor people. In search of quote unquote justice, the government ran over these people.' "

Treanor will stay home in Guthrie, Okla., during the trial. Marsha Kight, whose 23-year-old daughter, Frankie Merrell, died in the bombing, will move temporarily to Denver.

For the trial of McVeigh and the subsequent trial of Terry Nichols, Kight will be living with a college roommate, paying part of the rent and buying groceries to keep costs down.

If she does not win a seat through the lottery, she will vie for the other seats in the courtroom and the auxiliary courtroom. "I'll go stand in line every day," Kight says. "I'll ask a reporter to get up if I have to. I think it's where Frankie would want me to be."

5 trips to Denver so far

Paul Heath, a Veterans Administration psychologist and head of an Oklahoma City survivors association, could have cashed in his accumulated annual leave time last year for $15,000. He decided to use the hours due him for trips to Denver and to the FAA auditorium.

"So, if I use all that time," he says, "I will have invested $15,000 in a terrorist trial."

He's also made five trips to Denver for pretrial hearings, travel that has cost him about $3,000.

Heath lost some hearing in the blast and has suffered two heart attacks since then. But he says he has become a better counselor. "Many veterans have post-traumatic stress disorders. And they come in and look at me and say, 'You've been under fire. You're one of us now.' "

Kight also says the bombing changed her forever.

Since her daughter's death, Kight, who heads a survivors organization, has been "much more politically aware, much more an advocate for victims rights. I'm no nonsense. I'm more assertive now. I'm not afraid to confront."

In pretrial hearings, she studied McVeigh. "His body language tells me he's very proud of himself," she says.

'Choke the smile off his face'

Treanor describes McVeigh as "laughing, joking, just having a great time. Like I tell my kids, sometimes monsters look just like regular people."

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