McVeigh Case Lawyers Argue for Death, Life


Four lawyers faced a Denver jury Thursday morning and each of them urged the 12 Coloradans to decide whether Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh should be legally executed or die the death of an old man in prison.

Prosecutor Beth Wilkinson turned toward McVeigh and in a voice cracking but loud enough for the jury to hear said: “Look into the eyes of a coward and tell him you will have courage. . . . Tell him he is no patriot. He is a traitor and deserves to die.”

Her boss, chief government attorney Joseph H. Hartzler, also argued for a death sentence, telling the jurors: “Many of you will feel remorse. That’s OK to feel remorse. I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this. I’m sorry you have to do this. But you do.”


The defense, asking that McVeigh’s life be spared, was equally passionate.

Richard Burr, on whom it fell to mount a case for why the life of the man responsible for the worst act of domestic terrorism should be spared, said: “You know that Tim is not an evil man . . . but instead a man who embodies much of the best that we call human.”

And lead defense attorney Stephen Jones, suggesting that McVeigh’s death would leave unanswered who may have helped him bomb Oklahoma City to avenge earlier FBI raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and near Waco, Texas, warned: “Now it is time for this madness to end. It is time to reconcile. It is time to find out the full truth. . . . That is what this case is about. It’s not about saving my client’s life.”

When the legal arguments ended, Judge Richard P. Matsch instructed the jury of seven men and five women on the law and then, 15 minutes after noon, sent them into their second round of deliberations.

On June 2, they convicted McVeigh in the April 1995 explosion of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Now comes this question: one man’s life versus the 168 lives lost in the bombing. The jurors met for fewer than five hours Thursday and are to return this morning to continue their deliberations.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case with the same themes they had sounded at the beginning of the trial seven weeks ago. They talked about the tremendous loss of life from the Murrah building explosion--parents, children, siblings, grandchildren--victims all killed in one sudden blow from an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil truck bomb.

Defense lawyers took a risky tact. In all but admitting McVeigh’s role in the bombing, they said that he was driven by his rage over federal law enforcement abuses near Waco and at Ruby Ridge, where raids left more than 80 people dead.


They suggested that McVeigh’s rage against Washington mirrored the skepticism many Americans have come to feel about the federal government. They said that McVeigh resembles “everyman” in that he was the typical son of America--a carefree boy, a brave soldier, a young man in search of himself.

The defense lawyers then said that if McVeigh were executed, it may never be known if others were involved in the bombing. And if there were others who are not known, the defense hinted, then they are free to kill again.

Prosecutors Wilkinson and Hartzler scoffed at such suggestions. They said that the real issue is making McVeigh pay for driving a Ryder rental truck to the front of the Murrah building and detonating a bomb of as much as 6,000 pounds. If not in this case, they said, then when in the United States will the death penalty ever be justified?

Wilkinson went first, reminding jurors of the great human suffering that morning in downtown Oklahoma City and how the anguish continues.

“One need only consider the size of the bomb,” she said, “to know that Timothy McVeigh intended to kill people. No one builds a bomb of that size and that force unless they want to kill as many people as possible.”

She added: “Killing 168 people is enough. This is the crime that the death penalty was designed for.”


She was followed by Burr, a Texas attorney who specializes in representing death row inmates on appeal. He spoke at length about McVeigh’s normal childhood and reminded the jury how his client’s mother and father had urged Wednesday that his life be spared.

Burr described McVeigh as “honest,” a “hard worker,” “dependable.” He also recalled McVeigh’s deep opposition to gun control, his “abiding interest in survivalism” and his growing hatred of the federal government.

He said that McVeigh’s motive for the bombing “was based on qualities that in other contexts we applaud,” such as resistance to tyranny and sacrificing life in pursuit of a greater good.

“Aren’t we all in some way implicated in his crime . . . ?” Burr asked. “There is a reason for all of us to have concern. That we have not expressed that concern before this tragedy means that we all bear some responsibility for Oklahoma City.”

Burr also urged the jurors not to seek revenge. “How do we teach love and compassion when what we are confronted with is hate?” he asked. “When hate leads to killing, do we abandon our commitment to love and compassion by killing the killer?”

Next up was Jones. He advanced the theory that death for McVeigh could prompt other ultra-rightists to make him a martyr for their cause.


He left no doubt that McVeigh will be remembered. He recalled the number of victims killed by past mass murderers Charles Manson, Charles Whitman, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy and said: “If you were to add them all up, they wouldn’t equal the 168 killed in Oklahoma City.”

Even the number of American soldiers killed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War--in which McVeigh served and was decorated--is smaller than the death count at the Oklahoma City federal building.

Jones echoed Burr’s theme that McVeigh acted on the impulses that many Americans feel.

“He is not alone,” Jones said. “His fears are not alone. Neither are his beliefs. There are others who share those.

“He is not a demon, though surely his act was demonic.

“Mr. McVeigh could very easily be considered the boy next door. And that is what is serious about it because, you see, he is not an emotional or physical aberration. He is every man.”

The final word was left to lead government prosecutor Hartzler, who also had the trial’s first word.

His message was simple, focusing on the everyday pleasures in life that McVeigh enjoyed and that his victims and their families now never will appreciate.


For instance, he said, as a boy McVeigh loved collecting comic books, playing “king of the mountain” and eating strawberry Pop-Tarts--all simple pleasures that the 19 children killed in the bombing will never experience.

He then encouraged the jurors to work together in their deliberations, mindful that the government must have all 12 of them agree on a death sentence.