Is 'Swift, Severe' Justice Possible For Terrorists?


PRESIDENT Clinton promises ''swift, certain, and severe'' justice for the individuals who were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Is it a pledge he can fulfill?

Recent history indicates the Justice Department may be successful at getting the perpetrators to trial quickly. But the trial is likely to take months, and the expected appeals could continue for nearly a decade.

Lawyers, in fact, caution against a rush to judgment. ''It is not the time to fan the flames but to let our normal system work,'' says Sheldon Krantz, a partner at Piper & Marbury, a Washington law firm and a professor of law at American University in Washington.

Despite the potential for a long trial and verdict appeals, the criminal-justice system has a record of expediting the trials of alleged and convicted terrorists. From arraignment to trial, the delays have been kept to a minimum in keeping with a federal speedy trial mandate, which places emphasis on serious criminal cases. And, in the only recent terrorist trial to come to a conclusion so far, the World Trade Center bombing, the four defendants were given 240 years in prison for their crime, which resulted in six deaths and 1,000 injuries.

While the criminal justice system cranks into gear in Oklahoma, authorities say the manhunt continues for a second ''John Doe'' and at least four other individuals. Last Friday, the government arrested Timothy McVeigh, who faces federal bombing charges on Thursday.

On Sunday, Clinton proposed new FBI powers to combat terrorism. Those powers include giving investigators greater latitude to search phone logs and hotel registers and the establishment of an FBI domestic counterterrorism center.

In Oklahoma City, the search for survivors continues. At press time, there were 78 confirmed deaths and 100 people still missing.

Three other trials

The trial for the Oklahoma bombing will be the fourth terrorist trial since the World Trade Center bombing in February, 1993. The government is trying Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 other defendants on seditious conspiracy to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and other landmarks. That trial, which began on Jan. 10 is expected to take up to nine months.

Yesterday, the government presented a new indictment of Ramzi Yousef, described as the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Yousef is charged with exploding a bomb on a airplane.

Of course the Oklahoma City trial, or trials, will have its own special set of circumstances. For example, Attorney General Janet Reno has already stated the government will seek the death penalty. While many states now have the death penalty, the last federal government execution was in Iowa in 1963.

Last September Congress passed a crime bill which reinstituted the death penalty for some federal crimes. Mr. McVeigh will be charged with maliciously damaging federal property, a capital offense when there are fatalities. The government may yet decide to ask for the death penalty for Yousef who will be on trial in New York.

Getting the Oklahoma defendants to trial quickly will depend on the judge assigned to the case. ''It depends on whether a judge is willing to push things, or if the judge is laid back,'' says Austin Campriello, who defended one of the World Trade Center bombers.

Although the government may get the Oklahoma suspects to trial quickly, enacting the death penalty if either man is found guilty, will consume a significant amount of time.

''Even though there have been significant changes in the review process for the death penalty, it is still not likely there will be swift punishment,'' says Mr. Krantz.

A defendant convicted of a capital offense can begin the normal process of appeal through the United States Circuit Courts, which review lower court decisions. The defendant can then ask the Supreme Court to review the matter. For defendants convicted of capital offenses in state courts, Krantz says it normally takes about 10 years until the death penalty is enacted.

One of the first challenges in ensuring a fair trail is deciding the location. Mr. McVeigh's lawyer has stated that he does not believe his client can get a fair trial in Oklahoma City where the case will start.

Wherever the Oklahoma bombing trial takes place, ''It will probably be pieced together like the World Trade Center case,'' says Otto Obermaier, a former United States attorney and now a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges, a New York law firm.

Experts from the FBI and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) Agency will present technical evidence about the bombing. ''It is possible to get detailed matches of chemicals and metals, you can trace where things were purchased,'' says Gerald Lynch, a former federal prosecutor, now a professor at Columbia Law School in New York.

Even though the FBI is known for its scientific and technical expertise, Mr. Lynch says ''one should never underestimate the ability of the FBI to do sheer leg work.

High price tag

The Oklahoma case is also likely to resemble the World Trade case in another respect: It will be expensive. The US Marshall's Service estimates it cost $2,885,000 to provide security for the World Trade Center trial. The trial of the sheik is costing $1.1 million per month.

But the benefits outweigh the costs, some lawyers say. ''The trials must be carried forward to provide one of the basic freedoms -- the freedom to feel safe in your own home. The cost is secondary,'' says Mr. Obermaier.

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