Timothy J. McVeigh was formally sentenced to death Thursday, moments after reciting from memory an obscure quotation from a 1928 Supreme Court opinion about the proper role of government in America.
Fashioning himself as an anti-government crusader even after his conviction in the Oklahoma City bombing, the 29-year-old McVeigh addressed the U.S. District Court in a new military-style buzz haircut and a drab, cream-colored jail uniform.
He chose to speak just 43 words, most of it a citation from "Olmstead et al vs. the United States," which deals with the use of government wiretaps in an anti-liquor-law case during Prohibition. McVeigh quoted Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' comments that government agents had broken the law in order to make arrests.
"If the court please," McVeigh said, standing at the lectern, his hands clasped behind his back, his voice low and faltering.
"I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, 'Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.'
"That's all I have."
U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch seemed unimpressed. "All right," he said, and then formally handed down a sentence of death for McVeigh.
The entire proceeding lasted just less than nine minutes. As the courtroom cleared, few people had any idea what McVeigh had been talking about. Prosecutors and some of McVeigh's attorneys were in the dark, as was a reporter for Court TV--to whom many in the press corps immediately turned for some instant analysis.
Defense attorney Christopher Tritico said he planned to retreat to his law library to review the Brandeis citation. "Those were Tim's comments," he said. "And that's what Tim wanted to say."
Government lawyers, however, urged Americans to dismiss McVeigh's remarks. "Don't interpret his words as those of a spokesman or a statesman," cautioned chief prosecutor Joseph Hartzler.
Family members and some of those injured in the worst mass murder in the nation's history said McVeigh's comments--still vacant of any remorse for the April 19, 1995, bombing--show he remains defiant even in the face of his own death sentence.
"He still acts as if he is above the rest of us," said Paul Heath, a Veterans Affairs Department psychologist who was injured in the blast. "He acts as if he is above the law, as if he believes he is above the Constitution. He still sees himself as a soldier. In his mind, he is a revolutionary and he believes what he said was a revolutionary statement."
Marsha Kight, whose daughter was killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, said McVeigh's last--and only--words to the court will mystify the families of the 168 dead and more than 500 injured.
"He may think it's easy to put it off on somebody else," she said. "But we all set an example by what we do."
McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran, bombed the Murrah building in retaliation for the government's 1993 raid on a religious compound near Waco, Texas. Using a Ryder rental truck filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, he set off the explosion at 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, one of the busiest times of day there.
When McVeigh entered the courtroom, he seemed relaxed and jovial. He joked to his legal team about the orange flip-flop shoes prison officials had given him to wear.
"Look at my shoes!" he laughed, pointing to his feet. "Look at my shoes!"
His demeanor turned solemn during the brief hearing, and when it was over he was led from the courtroom, taking one final look at the crowd as his head cleared the doorway.
His chief attorney, Stephen Jones, filed a notice of appeal, thus starting a process that legal observers said could last from three to four years before, if the appeals are unsuccessful, McVeigh is executed by lethal injection.
Jones also has found himself at the center of a dispute over his representation of McVeigh. His client complained in a telephone interview this week with the Buffalo News, his hometown newspaper, that he wants Jones removed from the appeals process.
"The truth is this guy [Jones] only succeeded in getting the death sentence and now he doesn't want to let go," McVeigh told the newspaper.
"It's for Congress, the bar and the judiciary to investigate and discover. You would not believe some of the things that have occurred in this case. The man has repeatedly lied to me in the past."
He added: "It's a cultural clash between us. Jones would be a politician and I'd be a statesman."
McVeigh also wrote a letter to Matsch shortly after he was convicted, complaining of the "problems and difficulties I have had with my appointed counsel in the past." The judge advised him to communicate with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jones, normally talkative about the case, has declined to respond to McVeigh's assertions, citing a court rule that prohibits such comments. Some observers suggested that the whole matter may be a ruse by McVeigh and Jones to mount an appeal based on grounds of ineffective counsel.
Jones did say McVeigh has been under an extreme amount of stress since the trial resulted in the death penalty. "We all die," the lawyer said. "It comes to all of us, and we all hope we are prepared. And sometimes it comes without warning, as it did for the people in Oklahoma."
The second trial in the bombing begins Sept. 29, in which Terry L. Nichols, 42, an Army pal of McVeigh's, also faces a death sentence if convicted.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Timothy J. McVeigh's statement before he was formally sentenced to death Thursday for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building:
If the court please, I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." That's all I have.