Justice for Oklahoma City bombers McVeigh trial: Judge Matsch challenged by damaging publicity and rights of victims.

March 31, 1997

RARELY in American history has it been so crucial and difficult for the Republic to conduct a criminal trial both effectively and fairly as in the case against Timothy McVeigh that is scheduled to begin today in Denver.

Defense requests for postponements, based on these difficulties, continued till the last. The alleged accomplice in the April 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and wounded 500, Terry Nichols, will be tried separately.

The bombing was a crime of anarchy against the state. All Americans are its intended victims in the abstract. But the 500 survivors and the loved ones of the 168 slain are victims of a more intimate and painful sort. There are more of them than in any trial in memory, forming a compelling interest group.

The public interest creates all the problems of circus atmosphere and prejudicial publicity that might infringe Timothy McVeigh's right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. The widespread reporting, some of it irresponsible, of real or spurious documents seeming to incriminate him, does not make this easy. Americans do not want Mr. McVeigh or Mr. Nichols found guilty if they are not. Nor would Americans want the guilty person to escape justice through faulty proceedings. Fortunately, federal District Court Judge Richard Matsch appears to be more disciplined than California Judge Lance Ito proved to be in the 1995 murder trial of O. J. Simpson.

The other set of difficulties comes from the growing concern for rights of victims in American law, including an ill-considered effort to amend them into the Constitution. In this case, fearing a reversal of sentence, Judge Matsch forbade victims who would testify after conviction at a sentence hearing to attend the trial.

The result was the remarkable spectacle of Congress and president enacting a law to reverse a procedural ruling. This allows such witnesses to attend the trial, which many demand to do in hopes of attaining spiritual and emotional closure -- a concept different than justice for the state and the accused. Judge Matsch backed down.

Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols are entitled to a presumption of innocence and to fair trials. American citizens and the victims of Oklahoma City are entitled to the will and ability of the state to defend itself from terrorism through conviction of the guilty in a court of law. These entitlements can be in conflict.

Rarely has so much ridden on the probity, intellect and common sense of one judge as it does now on Judge Matsch. The health of the nation requires that this trial be done right.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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