Government witnesses scheduled to testify against accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh conceded in court Tuesday that they had given conflicting descriptions of the defendant and, in some cases, a man they say accompanied him in the days before the blast.
The witnesses were called at a hearing here to determine whether they will be allowed to testify at McVeigh’s trial or will be barred by the court from appearing, as defense attorneys argue they should.
The eyewitnesses are central to the government’s case. Two of them were employees of a Junction City, Kan., shop where McVeigh allegedly rented the Ryder truck used in the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured 600.
McVeigh’s trial is scheduled to begin March 31. One crucial issue still to be resolved is whether a small number of government eyewitnesses should be allowed to testify before the jury.
Prosecutors contend that their eyewitnesses will give sincere accounts of what they remember about the activities of McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols before the bombing. Jurors should hear the witnesses and decide what weight to give their testimony, the prosecutors said.
Stephen Jones, the chief lawyer for McVeigh, argued that the eyewitnesses have been adversely affected by media accounts and he suggested that they may have embellished their stories in attempts to win a large reward offered for information that leads to the successful prosecution of those responsible for the bombing.
“The $2-million reward might have had an influence,” Jones said.
Thomas Kessinger, a mechanic at Elliott’s Body Shop where the Ryder truck was rented, gave the FBI a description of “John Doe No. 2,” who, he originally said, was with McVeigh when the truck was rented.
But Kessinger later conceded that, while he is certain McVeigh was accompanied by someone when he came to the shop, he had confused the identity of McVeigh’s companion with that of a Ft. Riley, Kan., soldier who appeared at the shop the day after McVeigh was there.
In his descriptions of McVeigh to the FBI, Kessinger made him seem larger than he is and said that his complexion, which is clear, was marked by acne scars.
The owner of the body shop, Eldon Elliott, gave faulty descriptions of McVeigh, and he too recalled a second man who appeared to be with McVeigh when the truck was rented. “There was another person there, yes,” Elliott said.
Elliott said McVeigh gave the shop $280 in cash for the truck, did not take out insurance and did not bother with a visual inspection of the vehicle. He said that McVeigh told him he was taking the truck to Nebraska and Iowa.