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Terrorism

The Oklahoma City Bombing

In June 1997 the murder and conspiracy trial of Timothy J. McVeigh ended in the death sentence. The 29-year-old former Army sergeant was convicted of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast, which claimed 168 lives, was the worst terrorist act ever committed on U.S. soil. McVeigh pleaded not guilty, but the elaborate case mounted by federal prosecutors led to a swift jury verdict of guilty on all 11 counts.

After a nationwide manhunt, investigators from the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) had linked McVeigh to the blast using remnants of a Ryder rental truck believed to have carried the bomb. At trial, prosecutors established further ties: telephone records and testimony by the owner of the rental office suggested McVeigh had rented the truck under an alias in Junction City, Kansas, two days before the bombing. Residue from explosives had also been found on McVeigh's clothing.

Prosecutors portrayed McVeigh as an anti-government extremist. The defendant's sister, Jennifer McVeigh, told the court that he was angry over the government's destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in April 1993, and that he had hinted at taking action. Personal correspondence was introduced as evidence in an effort to round out the portrait of McVeigh as a follower of far-right politics, who was disillusioned and willing to commit acts of terror. Key testimony came from Michael J. Fortier, an Army friend and co-conspirator who had surveyed the Federal Building with McVeigh, and his wife, Lori Fortier. The Fortiers said that McVeigh wanted the bombing to start a civil war.

Led by Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, the defense team was critical of every phase of the prosecution. Defense attorneys attacked the methodology of the FBI in preparing physical evidence as well as the government's witnesses. In particular, they charged that the Fortiers were liars who hoped to escape prison time and to profit financially from their testimony. Maintaining that McVeigh was railroaded, the defense pointed to the existence of a human leg found in the ruins of the building to suggest that the actual Oklahoma City bomber had died in the explosion.

After the jurors returned a guilty verdict on June 2, the trial moved into an unusual penalty phase. The defense, seeking leniency, made a lengthy presentation about the Waco siege, at which McVeigh had been present, in what seemed to observers an odd effort to explain his motives in Oklahoma City. It also called to the stand William McVeigh, who made an emotionally charged appeal for his son's life. But the statements of survivors who had lost family and friends in the Oklahoma massacre apparently swayed the jurors, who decided on execution.

FURTHER READINGS

Gottman, Andrew J. 1999. "Fair Notice, Even for Terrorists: Timothy McVeigh and a New Standard for the Ex Post Facto Clause." Washington and Lee Law Review 56 (spring).

Hoffman, David. 1998. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror.Venice, Calif.: Feral House.

"Responding to Terrorism: Crime, Punishment, and War." 2002. Harvard Law Review 115 (February).

Rodgers, Jim, and Tim Kullman. 2002. Facing Terror: The Government's Response to Contemporary Extremists in America.Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Taking at sea to Tonkin Gulf ResolutionTerrorism - The Oklahoma City Bombing, Domestic Terrorism, International Terrorism, Further Readings