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Oklahoma City Bomb Suspects Plead Not Guilty : Arraignment: Attorneys for McVeigh, Nichols say defendants can't get a fair trial in community. Special courtesy shown to federal workers in court is cited.

August 16, 1995|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, escorted separately into a courtroom crowded with federal employees touched by the deaths of their colleagues, proclaimed their innocence Tuesday in the terrorist bombing of the federal building here four months ago.

Inside a courtroom that itself was damaged by the blast across the street, defense attorneys insisted that a fair trial is impossible in Oklahoma City because no one in the community emerged unaffected by the bombing.

McVeigh, standing in his jailhouse khakis, his hands clasped behind him, leaned into a microphone and told U.S. Magistrate Ronald Howland: "Sir, I plead not guilty."

Nichols, sporting a blue blazer and chinos, held his hands folded before him and appeared nervous. Asked how he responded to charges that he helped murder 168 people, most of them federal employees, he answered: "Your honor, I am innocent."

Tuesday's court proceeding, a routine arraignment for the ex-Army pals, turned into a small drama as U.S. marshals locked the doors of the courtroom to some relatives of the bombing victims but then allowed dozens of courthouse employees to sneak in through the judge's chambers and occupy the front rows.

McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, said the preferential treatment demonstrates why the trial must be moved from Oklahoma City.

Michael E. Tigar, representing Nichols, complained that the judge refers to the courthouse staff as his "court family."

"We cannot get a fair trial in a city where judges knew people who were killed," Jones said afterward, standing along 4th Street, which divides the rubble of the former Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building from the courthouse.

"Judges themselves on this north wall could have been killed," Jones said. "All of these chambers were heavily damaged. And you look around and it appears until very recently a war zone.

"To say to the American people that in this building and with these people, these judges, that our clients can get a fair trial is not in our opinion intellectually honest."

To dramatize his point, he raised aloft a T-shirt that he said employees of the court clerk's office had been selling inside the building. The shirt memorialized "April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City" and paid tributes to rescue workers and federal agencies targeted in the blast.

As the courtroom filled with federal workers, four members of Nichols' family, including his brother, James D. Nichols of Decker, Mich., were forced to sit far in the back. And Howland flatly refused to consider any entreaties that they be allowed better seats than the courthouse employees.

"They all drove down from Michigan," Tigar said of his client's family. "They came here especially to be here and show their support.

"But when I arrived this morning, perhaps a third of the courtroom seats had already been occupied by court personnel. They sat in the front seats and inside the bar of the court. And the magistrate referred to them as the 'court family.' "

With those seats taken, some family members of the dead found they could not get into the third-floor courtroom. The double doors were closed when they arrived, every seat taken.

Valerie Novack, 25, the daughter of a federal credit union employee killed in the blast, said: "Four months now, and the pain still comes and goes. I think there's something more to it than just these two guys. But I couldn't get in to find out."

One couple who came from Florida, eager to set eyes on McVeigh and Terry Nichols, did manage to claim two of the choice seats. They identified themselves only as Lance and Stephanie; Lance said his brother had been a rescue worker helping the hundreds of injured.

"They both should fry," Lance said of the two defendants. "They've got enough evidence against them right now just to fry them and save the taxpayers money."

Some courthouse workers who filled the courtroom said they had no bias against the defendants. "We believe in the law," said Sharon Coyne, a deputy court clerk. "We believe that they are innocent until proven guilty."

Likewise, U.S. District Judge Wayne E. Alley, the federal judge who has been designated to preside over the trial, took the unusual step of filing a four-page "notice to counsel" in which he says he has not prejudged the guilt or innocence of McVeigh and Nichols.

"I intend to conduct a trial in a fair, objective and dignified manner in full realization that the rights of all parties should be scrupulously observed," Alley wrote.

He also said that some questions being raised by McVeigh's lawyers about him were inappropriate.

"For instance," he wrote, "whether members of my staff attended funerals of persons killed . . . or were friends of decedents or injured persons is none of my business. I have not asked them about these personal matters and do not intend to."

Alley said he was at home in nearby Norman, Okla., preparing his financial disclosure statement the morning of the blast and did not learn of it until he visited his wife's office in Norman.

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