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OKLAHOMA CITY: AFTER THE BOMB : Defense Lawyers Meet an Indefensible Crime

April 27, 1995|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — It promises to be the biggest mass murder case in American history, with accused bomber Timothy J. McVeigh likely to be charged with killing more than 150 people. Yet many of the nation's most celebrated criminal defense lawyers want no part of this latest trial of the century.

"This crime is so evil, so senseless that I wouldn't want to engage my talents in defending this client," said New York attorney William Kunstler, who is engaging his talent to defend the accused New York bombing conspirators. "I have children too," he added.

Houston attorney Jack Zimmermann, who helped represent the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., said that he too prides himself on defending loathsome defendants--but not the suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I have a Marine Corps background. And I have two sons in the Marine Corps. And there was a recruiting office in that building. I would not represent someone who engaged in treason or a direct attack on the government," he said.

Finding a qualified defense lawyer to represent the alleged perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing promises to be only the first complication in a crime case that has no parallels in U.S. legal history.

The grim television footage of bleeding babies will make it hard to find jurors anywhere, let alone in Oklahoma, who can approach the trial impartially. The judiciary itself will be tested since its members were among those who were attacked. And federal prosecutors will be moving into somewhat uncharted territory since they will be relying on new death penalty provisions added to the law just last year in the 1994 crime bill.

Indeed, far from the multiple shootings and child killings that have become almost routine in recent years, legal experts said that the Oklahoma City bombing case seems destined to enter a hypercharged zone of national outrage matched, if ever, by the Lindbergh kidnaping case in the 1930s or the Rosenberg spy case of the 1950s. In both cases, the defendants were convicted and executed but questions were raised then, and later, about whether the accused had received fair trials.

"I've had my share of high-profile and unpopular defendants," said Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, "but this guy (McVeigh) has got to be the most unpopular defendant in our history."

On Thursday, McVeigh will appear for a pretrial hearing before a U.S. magistrate here, where his two court-appointed attorneys are expected to renew their requests to withdraw from the case. On Wednesday, Magistrate Richard Howland said that it was "premature" to transfer the case elsewhere in the 10th Circuit of the federal trial court system, which includes Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

He also refused at this early stage to allow McVeigh's court-appointed lawyers to leave the case.

But both John W. Coyle III, a well-respected local lawyer who last year defended a man who had mutilated a mother and her infant daughter, and federal public defender Susan Otto said that they did not believe they should represent McVeigh. Both said they had friends and acquaintances who were killed in the April 19 bombing.

All across the state, Oklahoma lawyers said that the case must be moved.

"Get this case out of Oklahoma. We need to rid ourselves of it. It would be just too painful to relive," said Oklahoma City attorney Merle Gile.

"There's a trail of blood leading from this that touches everyone I talk to," added Charles J. Watts, another local lawyer.

Since McVeigh has no money, he cannot hire a team of high-priced legal talent to speak for him. Under the terms of last year's crime bill, he is entitled to have two court-appointed lawyers, one of whom should have experience in capital cases.

Perhaps the best respected death penalty expert on the defense side is David Bruck of Columbia, S.C., but he is already busy representing a thoroughly unpopular client: Susan Smith, the young mother accused of drowning her two young sons.

On the prosecution side, few federal attorneys have experience in handling death penalty cases since they are a relatively new phenomenon. No federal prisoner has been executed since 1963. Moreover, the Oklahoma City office is short-staffed because the U.S. attorney was named to the federal bench and a full-time replacement has not been named. The Justice Department is expected to step in and send a team of prosecutors from Washington.

However, the new legal terrain has its advantages. The 1994 statute seems tailor-made for the villain who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It applies to persons who "use weapons of mass destruction" and who "cause death while transporting explosives."

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