Less Is More for Prosecution In McVeigh Bombing Trial
By distilling evidence down to essentials, government attorneys have strengthened their case.
DENVER — Had jurors known how the prosecution's case against Timothy McVeigh would unfold, they might have asked for seat belts in the courtroom.
As the government nears the end of its case against Mr. McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, observers have marveled at the weight of the government's evidence and the speed with which it has delivered that evidence. A "less is more" attitude has led government attorneys to pare down reams of circumstantial evidence and hundreds of witness testimonies to a hard-hitting list of essentials.
"I am impressed by the prosecution," says David Japha, a Denver criminal lawyer who is following the trial. "They are well organized. That opening statement was the best I've ever heard. It was simple, easy to follow, and as a road map to the case, it was perfect."
From the evidence linking McVeigh to the rental of the Ryder truck that allegedly held the bomb to star witness Michael Fortier's testimony that McVeigh had spoken of his plan "to bomb the building on the anniversary of Waco," the prosecution has woven a web of circumstantial evidence from which McVeigh stands little chance of escaping, legal analysts say.
"It's been a very powerful case, very strong," says Frank Jamison, a law professor at the University of Denver. "First, they started sensitizing the jury - saying what a terrible crime this was, how vicious. Then right away they brought in strong witnesses ... to link him to planning the bombing. It's a very good strategy."
Dispelling the clouds
But before the trial began, the strength of the prosecution's case was in doubt. An investigation of the FBI crime lab found that the explosives expert working on the bombing case improperly tailored his conclusions to help build an incriminating case against the defendants. Instead of hurting the prosecution, many say the investigation helped it concentrate on the most compelling evidence.
"This is a very bright prosecution. They're not going to bore the jurors with every detail," Mr. Jamison notes. "When you start bringing in everything you have, you create room for holes. As the O.J. Simpson case showed - with the DNA and the bloody glove - sometimes it's better to leave evidence out. If it's going to cause trouble, why bring it up?"
Denver trial lawyer Jeff Pagliuca agrees that the focus on the strongest evidence has helped the prosecution's case. "Everything is there: motive, planning, strong circumstantial evidence. When you start looking at the statistical probability that all these things happened coincidentally, it's something like one in a billion."
Yet the absence of an eyewitness linking McVeigh directly to the blast remains the government's Achilles' heel. Could this serve as an opportunity for the defense to create reasonable doubt? Could this be the hole through which McVeigh makes an escape - at least from the death penalty? That is possible, Jamison observes.
"This is one of those crazy cases where the suspect could be convicted of conspiracy, but not of the crime," he says. "I think the one thing the defense can do is to say, 'No one saw McVeigh blow up the building.' The prosecution, on the other hand, is glossing over the issue of the 'smoking gun.' "
Playing it close to the vest
But the defense, to the surprise of many, hasn't provided a clear picture of its strategy since the trial opened. "My client is innocent," McVeigh's lead attorney, Stephen Jones, told the courtroom during opening arguments, yet he didn't elaborate on why. Defense lawyers have also kept witness cross-examinations to a minimum, with the exception of McVeigh's former Army buddy, Mr. Fortier. During a fairly vicious cross-examination, Mr. Jones attacked Fortier's credibility as a witness, detailing the witness's admitted history of drug-dealing, addiction, lying, and theft.
The fact that Jones has yet to articulate a defense theory is perhaps because he doesn't have one, speculates Mr. Pagliuca. "I don't think they have much to work with. Jurors, however, want some kind of story. It's not enough to say, 'I'm innocent.' You need to say why."
Meanwhile, Jones, who is barred from discussing the case by a court gag order, made a general statement to reporters earlier this week: "All I can say is that sometimes things look different from the jury box than they do from the press box."
Mr. Japha, for one, doesn't buy that. "There are no scoreboards in the courtroom, of course. But my guess is that the jury is very impressed with the prosecution's presentation."