• U.S.

THE MATTER OF TIM MCVEIGH

6 minute read
George J. Church

As he awaits indictment–possibly by the end of this week–and a trial that could send him to his death, Timothy McVeigh leads a cramped and isolated life. The suspected bomber of the Oklahoma City federal building rises at 6:30 a.m. in his 8-ft. by 12-ft. cell in the Federal Correctional Institute in El Reno, Oklahoma, showers, dons an orange jump suit. Then, as he told TIME in answers to written questions, he has nothing to do but read (newspapers, a biography of Patrick Henry) and slam a racquetball against the wall.

McVeigh cannot watch TV, though it watches him. He is under camera surveillance 20 hours a day. He cannot even see anyone from his cell except the armed guard who sits right outside–one of three who keep a constant vigil. Would-be visitors are discouraged; even McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, has to go through three layers of security to see his client. McVeigh leaves his cell rarely, chained at the ankles and wrists and whisked away in a windowless, bulletproof van to the Oklahoma City federal courthouse. From its windows, grand jurors, and perhaps eventually trial jurors, can clearly see the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that McVeigh is suspected of having bombed on April 19, killing 168 people.

It is anything but the life foreshadowed by 95 pages of McVeigh’s academic records from the Starpoint Central School District in Lockport, New York, near the Canadian border. According to the documents Jones released to TIME, McVeigh was a bright (IQ 128, above average), hardworking student who got sloppy at times but earned mostly A’s and B’s through high school, falling just outside the top 20% of his class, which disqualified him for the training he wanted as a computer programmer. More striking are the descriptions of a likable youngster limned year after year in the handwritten evaluations of his teachers. Wrote a Mrs. Lane, who taught the fifth grade, for example: “Tim has been a pleasant, cooperative boy to work with this year. He was an active, contributing participant in all group activities–a real asset to this class. I’ll miss him!”

How did he turn into the gun-obsessed loner and right-wing drifter described in most reports of his activities between his time in Army service and the Oklahoma bombing? Even if his trial explores that subject, it is a long way off. In a preview of his strategy, lawyer Jones makes it clear he will dispute the government on every point–and take his time doing it. “The bottom line of our defense,” he says, “is this: we will concede nothing.”

The grand jury is working against a deadline of this Friday for handing up an indictment. Jones says matter-of-factly that he hears it will actually come Thursday. But he plans to ask permission to present to the grand jury exculpatory evidence that he claims he and six assistants have dug up in their own investigation. He will also ask the grand jury to call more witnesses–but not McVeigh. If granted, Jones’ request may put off the deadline for indictment–for how long is uncertain.

That would be only the first delay. Whenever an indictment is issued–and no one doubts one will be–Jones will file for a change of venue, contending that his client cannot get a fair trial in Oklahoma City. His first choice is Charleston, West Virginia. “I felt the case would have to be changed to the East,” he explains. “Government witnesses are in Washington, D.C.; Kansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. Charleston is about the same distance from all these places.”

But if Jones cannot get Charleston–or even if he can and finds it an inhospitable venue–he rattles off a list of six other cities. “You can always have a second change of venue,” he says. Last on the list: Fairbanks, Alaska. Jones expects at least nine months to go by after the indictment before a trial finally begins somewhere or other.

Meanwhile, the attorney is already developing themes he intends to exploit at the trial. One is an attack on the government for excess zeal. “The government is as much on trial as my client,” says Jones. In particular, he assails President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno for announcing that the government would seek the death penalty “before the grand jury had heard a single piece of evidence,” as the lawyer wrote in a letter to Patrick Ryan, U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma City. Under Justice Department rules, after an indictment Ryan will have to recommend to Reno what penalty to seek and wait for an official answer. Jones claims the Reno-Clinton calls for the death penalty–before investigators even had a suspect–violated Justice’s own rules.

The evidence Jones wants to present to the grand jury this week comes from an informant who, the lawyer says, told the FBI in early April that he knew of a bomb plot in the Midwest. The attorney says he has interviewed the man, who presented a letter from the government granting him immunity and a list of details about a conspiracy to bomb a “federal court facility.” The alleged perpetrators of this plot were Arabs said to be skilled in handling explosives. Arab terrorists, of course, were the immediate targets of public suspicion before McVeigh’s arrest.

Jones further claims there were two explosions, meaning perhaps two bombs. He also says a law-enforcement official has told him a leg not belonging to any of the known dead and covered with camouflage pants was found. He suggests it belonged to the “real” bomber, who failed to get away in time and blew himself up. Even if some or all of this can be proved, it does not necessarily clear McVeigh: there could have been two bombs and two bombers.

Meanwhile, the government, which said last week that three or four people would be indicted in the case, is also preparing its case. Timothy’s sister Jennifer McVeigh testified for three hours to the grand jury last week, bursting into tears at least twice outside the sessions. She was reportedly granted immunity by the prosecution; there are stories that she will say her brother roamed Midwestern roads in a van filled with explosives and once almost killed himself when he came close to a crash. Jones says if Jennifer testifies, “I think she will say some things helpful to the defense.” He puts on a show of being not just unruffled but also smug. He reels off names of famous defendants who won surprise acquittals against the seeming weight of evidence. If he can do the same for McVeigh, it will be the biggest surprise of all.

–Reported by Patrick E. Cole/Oklahoma City

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