Slain Children Haunt Opening Of Mcveigh Trial

Both Sides Recall Littlest Victims Of Oklahoma City Blast

Defendant Shows Little Emotion

April 25, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DENVER -- There were remembrances of dead children yesterday and tributes to grieving families. And then the lawyers at the Oklahoma City bombing trial turned from the victims to Timothy J. McVeigh, the man accused of blasting apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people.

Joseph Hartzler, the lead prosecutor, described McVeigh as a misguided Army veteran, obsessed with the date April 19, who confused his rage against the government with patriotism.

"He envisioned that by bombing the building in Oklahoma City, he would bring what he called liberty to the United States of America," Hartzler said in his opening statement in federal court here.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's chief lawyer, did not run from the horror in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. In fact, he stood and intoned the names of 168 victims, a recitation that took seven minutes. But he said he will show that the government's case is fatally flawed, a mix of misidentifications, botched laboratory work and witnesses with suspect motives.

And McVeigh's strong views against the government, Jones said, do not make him a killer.

McVeigh, in a blue-and-white plaid shirt and khaki slacks, was attentive to both lawyers' presentations. Sometimes his brow furrowed as he listened to each side outline their cases for the newly impaneled jury.

The courtroom was crowded. Overnight, a spring storm had moved in, blowing snow across Denver. But survivors of the bombing and victims'relatives began lining up in the cold before 7 a.m., waiting for more than an hour for the limited seats and a chance to hear the lawyers' first remarks to the jury.

"I'm here because my daughter can't be," said Marsha Kight, whose daughter, Frankie Merrell died in the bombing.

Security in the federal courthouse remained tight. Spectators had to pass through two metal detectors and carry official passes to get into the courtroom of Judge Richard P. Matsch.

Prosecutors will begin calling witnesses today. The first evidence is expected to include an audiotape of the bombing and five-minute videotape of the chaos and the frantic aftermath.

As he opened the government's case yesterday, Hartzler, who has multiple sclerosis and spoke from a wheelchair, promised the jurors so much proof of the defendant's guilt that "we will make your job easy."

Before he got to the evidence, he started with one family's story.

Tevin Garrett was 16 months old on April 19, 1995, Hartzler said. His mother remembers how mischievous he was that morning, tugging on the cord of her curling iron as she tried to dress for work.

She remembers all that clearly, Hartzler said, "because that was the last morning of his life."

Hartzler spoke of Tevin clinging to his mother as she tried to leave the day care center and how other youngsters came to him to comfort him. Every child the prosecutor named died in the blast.

"None of the parents of those children I just mentioned ever touched their children again while they were still alive."

"The only reason they died is that they were in a building owned by a government that Timothy McVeigh hated."

Hartzler then began to outline what jurors can expect to hear during the next few weeks.

"You will hear evidence in this case that Timothy McVeigh considered himself a patriot, someone who was capable of starting the second American revolution," Hartzler said.

McVeigh's suspicion of the government grew to rage after the fiery end to the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, Hartzler said. The defendant set out to educate himself about explosives and bombs. He told his friends "it was time to take action," Hartzler said.

When McVeigh created a phony driver's license so that he could rent the Ryder truck that carried the bomb, Hartzler said, he gave himself a new birth date: April 19.

April 19, the prosecutor noted, also was the date in 1775 that the first shots were fired in the American Revolution. But those Americans, he said, fought hand to hand and didn't attack children. "They didn't plant bombs and run away, wearing earplugs."

When McVeigh was arrested 75 minutes after the bombing, Hartzler said, he was wearing a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln and the Latin slogan, "Sic semper tyrannis," (Thus always to tyrants), the phrase John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting the president.

His car, Hartzler said, contained writings, some in his own hand and some published works, that raged against federal authority. "These documents are virtually a manifesto declaring McVeigh's intentions," Hartzler said.

He said McVeigh's planning had gone on for months. In his sister Jennifer's computer, the lawyer alleged, McVeigh created a file titled, "ATF Read," as if he wanted to flag it should agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ever come looking. ATF agents were involved in the Waco siege.

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