Okla. City jury selection begins McVeigh watches as potential jurors speak of tears, fears

April 01, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DENVER -- Timothy J. McVeigh watched intently from his seat in a federal courtroom yesterday as the painstaking examination of potential jurors began for his trial in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

In a heavily secured downtown courthouse, the first jury candidates were questioned cordially but closely on topics ranging from the death penalty to the O. J. Simpson trials to the government's siege in 1993 on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.

They also were asked where they were April 19, 1995 -- the day a bomb tore open the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring more than 500. The blast was the worst act of terrorism ever in the United States.

More than one of the jury candidates questioned yesterday spoke of crying over the bombing. One said he believed only God could impose the death penalty. Several others said they had hesitations about capital punishment but believed they could recommend it in certain cases.

For the first day of his trial, McVeigh, arrested initially on a traffic charge 80 minutes after the bombing and in custody ever since, wore a dark blue, open-necked shirt and khaki pants. A decorated Persian Gulf war veteran, he has been held in the federal courthouse since early Saturday, when he was transferred from a federal prison about 25 miles away.

The going yesterday was slow. U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch and lawyers from both sides managed to question only six of about 350 members of the jury pool.

Whether any of them will be seated on the jury and how the judge and lawyers will decide wasn't clear as the trial began. After the first candidate had undergone more than 90 minutes of questioning, Matsch dismissed him from the courtroom, saying, "We'll be in touch with you. I don't know when, but we will be."

The jurors, identified only by number, were called one by one to sit in the jury box. The order in which they appeared was random, the judge said: Their identification forms had been shuffled hundreds of times.

A wall added to the just-remodeled courtroom shields the jurors from the spectators' view, but not the defendant or attorneys. No government seal hangs over the judge's bench. Matsch, who will not let courtroom spectators wear any symbols such as crosses or tribute ribbons, also wanted federal symbols to be left out.

There are no commercial television broadcasts from the courthouse. A closed-circuit TV feed is sent back to a Federal Aviation Administration auditorium in Oklahoma City for the bombing victims and survivors who want to watch the proceedings.

The first jury candidate, a man identified as Juror No. 858, was questioned about his bachelor's degree in metallurgical engineering and what he knew about explosives from his work in the mining industry.

Now a Colorado resident, he was living in Tulsa, Okla., at the time of the blast. And when he traveled to Oklahoma City on business a couple of weeks later, the man said, he stopped by the ruins of the Murrah building.

"It was very moving and very sad," he said.

"Did you say a prayer to yourself?" asked Stephen Jones, the lead defense attorney.

"Yeah, I probably did," the man answered. And, when pressed by Jones to describe his emotions, the jury candidate said, "I think I cried a little."

In the months since he received his questionnaire and considered the possibility of sitting on the jury, the man said, "My personal safety has crossed my mind from time to time."

"I think there are potentially people out there that are ancillary to this case in some way or form that might want to make their strength or presence felt in some way, " the man said, carefully choosing his words. "This event runs much further and deeper than one individual, Mr. McVeigh.

"I think there's more than one individual involved."

The man said he believed that the government's sieges at Waco and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, on separatist Randy Weaver, were "overkill."

The second potential juror, a woman, said she cried when she watched television coverage of the bombing. And when she saw McVeigh, in an orange jumpsuit, taken into federal custody two days after the bombing, "I felt sorry for him for him to waste his life."

The third candidate, a woman, said on her jury questionnaire that she'd tend to believe the testimony of federal law enforcement agents more than other witnesses. "I just trust them," she said. But she also said that she had a "gut reaction" against the testimony of accomplices who bargain with prosecutors in exchange for lighter prison terms.

Michael Fortier, an Army buddy of McVeigh, has pleaded guilty to helping McVeigh transport weapons illegally. He is expected to testify that he cased the Murrah building with McVeigh.

The trial is estimated to last four months, with selection of 12 jurors and six alternates predicted to take two to four weeks. Defense attorney Jones said he expects testimony from 500 witnesses.

Outside and inside the building, security was intense.

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