McVeigh Verdict: Chill to Terrorists
It bolsters confidence in justice system
WASHINGTON — Timothy McVeigh's conviction in the Oklahoma City bombing sends a pointed message that would-be terrorists, even the home-grown kind in America's heartland, can expect neither support nor sympathy in the US.
While experts expect the verdict to have little impact on international terror groups, it may well act as a deterrent to US-based extremist organizations intent on fomenting unrest through violence. Analysts say the case also:
* Helps return some of the lost luster to the country's criminal-justice system that had been badly tarnished during the controversial O.J. Simpson trial.
* Demonstrates the government was able to track down and prosecute one of the perpetrators of the nation's deadliest terrorist attack despite serious questions about the quality of investigative work at the FBI crime lab.
* Provides a degree of solace to survivors and victims' relatives who are trying to put the tragic events of April 19, 1995, behind them.
"It sends a strong deterrent message that we as a country won't stand for it," says Bill Daly, a terrorism expert with the private security firm Kroll Associates.
The jury, which found McVeigh guilty of all 11 counts in his murder and bombing conspiracy indictment, now begins weighing whether he should receive the death sentence. The panel will hear testimony from both the defense and prosecution - including survivors and relatives. It will then face a second round of deliberations.
In the end, the McVeigh case may be more significant for its psychological impact on the country than for any legal issues raised in the trial. While America has always labored under the image of being a violent country, the verdict underscored a feeling among many residents that violence in the name of politics won't be tolerated.
Indeed, when a massive bomb ripped into the federal building two years ago, prosecutors say the intent was to spark a second American revolution.
But instead of taking up arms against the federal government, the vast majority of Americans recoiled in horror at televised scenes of children being pulled from the rubble that had been a day-care center.
"The Oklahoma City bombing was extremely disquieting to the American public because it showed that something that enormous can happen here to ordinary people going about ordinary jobs," says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University here. "Just as disquieting was the fact that the terrorist, McVeigh, "looks like the boy next door," he says.
Mr. Rothstein says these vulnerabilities arose at a time when the FBI itself was under an investigative microscope concerning allegations of sloppy and biased work at the FBI's crime lab. "It raised the specter that our law-enforcement agencies may be too corrupt and incompetent to protect us from [domestic terrorism]," he says.
If it was McVeigh's intent to trigger a civil war, he miscalculated. Analysts say he has even been disowned by the ultraconservative "patriot movement" in which he claimed membership.
"He was doing it to get people off the fence," says Mark Pitcavage, who follows right-wing extremist groups. "This is what is so striking, that in his own reality he believed that there were all these people out there on the fence [preparing for mass rebellion]. That just shows how divorced from reality he was."
The McVeigh trial is also seen as significant because it was conducted so differently from several other recent high-profile cases that seemed to show the justice system as adding to rather than helping solve national disputes.
"It shows that a large-scale and highly watched trial can be conducted more expeditiously and in a cleaner-cut way than the O.J. Simpson trial, and so it restores confidence in the judicial system," says Mr. Rothstein.
David Neubauer, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, agrees. "It has been really a textbook trial," he says. "The prosecutors presented a very clean, well-honed case and that reinforces the notion that justice works."
Mr. Neubauer, author of a textbook on American courts, says the O.J. Simpson trial highlighted shortcomings of the US justice system. The nationally televised trial was dominated by legal showboating, and the case was tainted by an undercurrent of racial tension that split the country.
By contrast, the McVeigh trial was conducted in a streamlined and dignified manner that analysts say reflects the no-nonsense approach of US District Judge Richard Matsch.
"I think the system needed an orderly trial," says Bill Pizzi, a University of Colorado law professor. "Americans needed to see that a trial could be run in an intelligent way. I think there's a lesson in this for other judges."
"The problem with the O.J. Simpson trial wasn't the verdict so much as the process," concurs David Japha, a veteran Denver trial attorney who followed the McVeigh case closely. "Here, the process was perfect. He got more than a fair trial. The evidence against him was just overwhelming."
* Jillian Lloyd contributed to this report from Denver.
WHAT'S NEXT IN BOMBING SAGA
Timothy McVeigh's conviction in the Oklahoma City bombing gives victims' families some closure, but the case isn't over.
* The jury reconvenes June 4 to decide what penalty Mr. McVeigh should face: a death sentence, life without parole, or a lesser sentence decided by Judge Richard Matsch. If he gets the death penalty, an execution date could be set as early as 60 days from sentencing. But McVeigh's lawyers are expected to appeal, and experts say an execution could be delayed as many as five years.
* Accused co-conspirator Terry Nichols will face trial, but no date has been set. He faces the same charges as his former Army buddy, and he, too, may be sentenced to death. Though McVeigh's conviction puts pressure on Mr. Nichols to seek a plea bargain, prosecutors say they won't offer him one.
* McVeigh and Nichols could face new trials on state charges. Oklahoma City District Attorney Bob Macy plans to file murder charges against both after the Nichols trial.
- Jillian Lloyd, wire services