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National Perspective | UPDATE

Argument Rages Whether State Should Try McVeigh, Nichols

Many believe federal convictions in Oklahoma City bombing are enough. Others aren't assuaged, suspecting conspirators still at large, citing 160 unprosecuted deaths.

January 20, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — Later this winter, the final design plans will be approved for a new federal office complex in Oklahoma City, a sign of rebirth and commitment that life goes on after the bombing here nearly three years ago.

But the real healing cannot begin until a raging debate is settled: Should the state proceed with the prosecution of Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols?

Many here who favored vigorous prosecution of the two men immediately after the blast now believe last year's federal court convictions were enough and that the state should drop the matter.

In their view, a state trial would be too expensive, eating up perhaps as much as $10 million that could go instead to improvements in their state. Besides, they say, the trial would stand in the way of healing for scores of victims.

Many others here do not agree. For them, the Nichols trial in particular fanned theories suggesting that other conspirators remain at large, despite an exhaustive federal investigation.

Also, some say, state convictions would ensure punishment of the two men if their federal convictions were overturned on appeal.

"This has been a bumpy road to justice, and it's now going to take another trip through Oklahoma City," said Paul Heath, a Veterans Affairs Department psychologist injured in the April 19, 1995, blast who thinks it's time to move on "with our own futures and not let this continue to consume us."

Other victims' feelings are even stronger. Bud Welch lost his daughter, 23-year-old Julie, in the bombing. But he nevertheless said taxpayers' money would be wasted on a state trial--money he and others insist could be better spent building new roads, bridges, hospitals and schools.

"I don't want them tried in state court," Welch said of McVeigh and Nichols. "I just want it to be over with."

He criticized a county grand jury that continues to investigate whether others got away with helping McVeigh and Nichols, and even whether the federal government had a role in the bombing--as some anti-government zealots have claimed and federal officials have vehemently denied.

"It's a joke," Welch said of the grand jury probe. "It's not headed anyplace. It's ridiculous."

McVeigh was convicted on all 11 counts, including the murders of eight federal law enforcement officers, in the federal indictment against him and was sentenced to death.

Nichols was found guilty of conspiring with McVeigh and of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of the eight federal agents killed in the blast. He escaped a death sentence and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Before the Nichols trial ended, so many here expected to find him on death row that some elected officials openly questioned the wisdom of spending state money retrying both men.

But now the dynamics have changed. No politician, particularly not in an election year, wants to come out against a state trial that could bring the death penalty for Nichols.

For instance, Gov. Frank Keating, a former high-ranking federal law enforcement officer, had praised the federal investigation and prosecution of McVeigh and Nichols. He had said it was unlikely that others were involved.

But after hearing the Nichols verdict, Keating quickly embraced plans for a joint McVeigh-Nichols trial in state court.

Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. Robert Macy, a popular longtime official, has many people here behind his plan to file state charges this spring and try the pair simultaneously, but before separate juries, this fall.

"We have a responsibility under Oklahoma law to try these individuals, and I think we can get a fair trial here," Macy said. "Whoever did this should be executed. Whoever participated in this should be executed."

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building killed 168 people, including the eight federal agents. The 160 civilian deaths were beyond the reach of the federal court but could be the subject of a state trial. Macy has threatened to try McVeigh and Nichols 160 times if that is what it takes to get a death sentence for both.

A state trial would be a "safety net" should the federal convictions be overturned, Macy said. He also noted that the appeals process is shorter in state court than in the federal system.

Since the death penalty was reactivated in America two decades ago, Oklahoma has executed six people--all in the last three years. The federal government has yet to carry out a death sentence.

Already, the state Legislature has appropriated $875,000 for Macy's office to start prosecution.

"There is no intention on our part of trying to kill these guys twice," said Macy's assistant, Richard Wintory. "We just want to make sure they are executed at least once."

Detractors call it a fool's errand.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's defense lawyer in the federal trial, said it could cost at least $5 million--perhaps as much as $10 million--to pay for Oklahoma justice, including reinvestigation, trials, appeals and executions.

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