The Thankless Chore Of Defending the Guilty

McVeigh sentencing shows life-or-death task

Stephen Jones may have the toughest job in America now: Trying to persuade jurors to spare the life of Timothy McVeigh, convicted this week of the most heinous act of terrorism in United States history.

For two days now, the 12 jurors have been presented with wrenching testimony - from rescue workers, family members of victims, and survivors - that has brought tears to many in the Denver courtroom.

"It would be easy for you to think of this as one mass murder," Patrick Ryan, the US attorney for Oklahoma told jurors. "Don't. There are 168 people, all unique, all individual."

Mr. McVeigh's lawyers now face the task of asking jurors to show compassion for the man whom they declared responsible for the blast on April 19, 1995.

Defense attorney's who take on capital-punishment cases are often a breed apart. They have to be. They are reviled by the public and the families of victims. In this case, polls show most Americans say McVeigh should get the death penalty.

"I don't envy Stephen Jones," says Denver criminal defense attorney David Lane, who has tried numerous capital cases. "You're not a popular person when you're representing someone whom society would just as soon sentence without a trial."

The highest stakes

But the burden of unpopularity pales in comparison with that of shouldering responsibility for whether your client lives or dies, he says. "If you lose the case, your client loses his life. And then you can't help but ask yourself, 'Am I responsible for this guy's life ending? Was there something else I could have done?' "

Working together for months, or years, to prepare for the trial, defense attorneys often develop a kind of friendship with the client. That serves to further increase the pressure. "I never had a death penalty client I didn't like," confides Mr. Lane. "We are all better than the worst thing we've ever done. There is redeeming value in every human life."

Losing sleep, missing meals, and having little time for family are typical conditions for defense attorneys on a death case, he says. "Every lawyer believes that there are magic words out there, and if they can only find those words, they can win the case."

The emotional - and financial - cost causes many criminal attorneys to shy away from capital cases, says Christopher Mueller, a University of Colorado law professor. "Trying a death penalty case is extremely taxing."

Compensation for capital cases is generally low. "For many attorneys, it ends up costing them out of pocket to defend these cases. You can't make a living this way," says Renee McDonald of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Not surprisingly, defendants in death cases - who are often indigent and rely on court-appointed counsel - rarely get quality representation, she adds.

In a case as high-profile as the Oklahoma City bombing, getting a top-flight attorney is easier. But even in the best of circumstances, the odds are stacked against a successful defense, says Lane. "The legal burden is that you only have to convince one juror to spare your client's life. But the practical burden is that you have these dead bodies scattered around, and victims' survivors are on the stand," he says. "In our society, we have equated justice with vengeance. So it's very difficult to convince a jury to keep someone alive just because he is a human being."

Many of the families of victims question McVeigh's humanity and hope that Jones and his defense team fail. For them, justice does require a punishment suitable to the nature of the crime.

"It's not over until he's dead," proclaims Peggy Broxterman, whose son died in the bombing.

Into the unknown

But no one knows what values or opinions the jurors bring to this case. McVeigh's lawyers plan to call his relatives and witnesses to describe the influences that turned the decorated Gulf war veteran against his government

They hope at least one juror thinks like survivor Bennie Evans, who worries the truth about the bombing might die with McVeigh. If McVeigh gets life in prison, "later on, he might talk" about possible co-conspirators, he says.

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