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Bomb Suspect's First Trial to Be Held in Alabama

Eric Rudolph will face charges in a 1998 fatal attack at a Birmingham abortion clinic. Lawyer for the former soldier says he's no zealot.

June 03, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Following a brief court appearance here Monday, accused serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph was flown to Birmingham, Ala., where prosecutors have decided to try him in a fatal abortion clinic attack in 1998 that they said represents the government's best chance for a speedy conviction.

Rudolph, shackled at the ankles, wore an orange jumpsuit and blue flak jacket as he appeared in court for the first time since his capture after a five-year manhunt. The hearing took place before a packed courtroom in U.S. District Court about 100 miles from where he was caught Saturday in the wooded mountains of western North Carolina.

It took 15 minutes for the reading of all 23 criminal counts stemming from four bombings in Birmingham and Atlanta, including one at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics.

Rudolph could face the death penalty. He did not enter a plea to the charges, which included bombing, use of explosives and their transportation across state lines, and making threats of violence by telephone and mail. The charges are contained in two federal indictments, issued in 2000.

The Birmingham charges stem from the Jan. 29, 1998, attack on the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, where a dynamite-laden bomb packed with nails killed an off-duty police officer and injured another person.

The Birmingham bombing is considered the strongest of the four cases, and the decision to try it first was not a surprise. A witness saw a possible suspect leave the scene, remove a woman's wig and jump into a Nissan pickup truck. The license plate allegedly matched that of a pickup truck registered to Rudolph.

Soon afterward, when officials opened a storage locker that Rudolph rented in Murphy, N.C., the town where he was arrested Saturday, they say they found nails like those used in the bombing, as well as extremist literature. That evidence led investigators to look into his possible role in the Atlanta-area attacks.

After Rudolph is tried in Birmingham, he will be transferred to Atlanta for a separate prosecution, said Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. In addition to the Olympics bombing on July 27, 1996, Rudolph is charged in two Atlanta incidents the following year: a bombing at a family-planning clinic that injured seven people and an attack on a gay-oriented nightclub that injured four.

Ashcroft predicted the Birmingham trial would be "relatively short and straightforward." The Atlanta cases represent a "more complicated trial," he said in a statement.

"Our approach is designed to provide the best opportunity to bring justice to all of the victims of the bombings, and to each community that experienced these terrorist attacks," Ashcroft said.

"His capture and return to Alabama will allow us the opportunity to move forward in our prosecution," Alice Martin, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in a statement. "For the widow of slain Birmingham Police Officer Robert 'Sande' Sanderson and Emily Lyons, a nurse who was severely injured by the blast, this is a day long awaited. We are thankful Rudolph will now face justice in a court of law."

After the Birmingham bombing, Rudolph is alleged to have sent a letter to news organizations in Atlanta claiming responsibility on behalf of the "Army of God." Similar letters had been sent after the bombings of the Atlanta clinic and nightclub the year before. He also is accused of making a telephone bomb threat shortly before the Olympics explosion, warning, "You have 30 minutes."

Beverly McMahon, former owner of the Otherside Lounge, the nightclub bombed on Feb. 21, 1997, said she wanted Rudolph to be prosecuted to the extent of the law, no matter where.

"I just want him to come to justice, that's what I want," said McMahon, who helped evacuate people after the initial explosion and whose car was blown up in a second blast during the incident. "I hope he goes to trial, no matter where he goes, and I hope they give him the death penalty."

Rudolph, 36, was stubble-faced but appeared in good health during the 30-minute court appearance. He showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge Lacy H. Thornburg explained his right to be represented by an attorney and asked whether the defendant was indeed Eric Robert Rudolph.

"Yes, Your Honor," Rudolph replied in a strong voice.

Later, Sean Devereux, an Asheville lawyer assigned to represent Rudolph during his hearing here, said his client is "a reflective individual, and he has a lot to think about. He is not an uncaring person."

"He has been portrayed as some sort of zealot, and he's not," Devereux told reporters outside the courthouse.

The attorney said Rudolph had told police where to find "one or more" of his campsites. Among the reading materials at one of the sites, Devereux said, was a biography of Gandhi.

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