OKC Bombing: 20 Years Later

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, for which Timothy McVeigh was executed in June, 2001.

On April 19, 1995, President Clinton said during his first national address [More...]

“We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers”.

Janet Reno spoke right afterwards, promising to seek the death penalty against whoever was responsible:

Q. Ms. Reno, the current crime bill that the President has signed includes a death penalty provision. Assuming you do catch these people, will you go for that?

A. 18 U.S.C., Section 844, relates to those who maliciously damage or destroy a Federal building. If there is death, if death occurs, the death penalty is available, and we will seek it.

That, of course, would have been in violation DOJ death penalty procedures, which provide that before a decision is made to seek the death penalty, the accused's lawyer must have a chance to meet with them and argue against it.

20 years later, so many people still ask, were others involved? Was Timothy McVeigh the mastermind or just a low level pawn who decided to claim full credit after being caught. (See Andrew Gumbel's latest article in the Guardian.) Since he's dead, we'll likely never know.

Here's a 2007 excellent interview with Rob Nigh, the second leader of the McVeigh defense team, in Mother Jones. Rob represented McVeigh through the trial and until his execution. He makes some excellent points:

MJ: What failings on the part of the U.S. government were exposed by the Oklahoma City bombing?

RN: I think that it should help us to realize that when we marginalize people and the government fails to accept responsibility for its misconduct, it causes people to become disillusioned to a dangerous state.

MJ: By misconduct are you referring to Waco and Ruby Ridge?

RN: Absolutely. Or other instances in which there has been government overreach either through illegal searches, illegal interrogations, or illegal detentions. They cause people to want to take matters into their own hands, and that is a tragic result for everyone.

MJ: What failings were exposed by McVeigh's trial?

RN: The short answer is that tragic cases cause us to change the law when we should not and they cause us to change the fundamental principles that we are supposed to live by.

MJ: How do you feel about attorney-client privilege after your client has been executed?

RN: The Supreme Court says, and I tend to agree with it, that the attorney-client privilege survives. I think that it must or you are not going to get candid answers from your client.

MJ: Do you wonder if a greater good could come from making public what you learned about the bombing from your conversations with Tim McVeigh?

RN: No, to me the principle is more important than any information I have that I've gained from Tim.

MJ: Do you think the full truth about the Oklahoma City bombing will ever come to light?

RN: Probably not. Evidence was lost or destroyed, and we killed the guy the jury said had all the answers.

Interestingly, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum has chosen the prosecution and defense teams in the McVeigh and Nichols trials to receive its 2015 Reflection of Hope Award. There will be a ceremony on Monday with former Deputy AG Jamie Gorelick giving the keynote speech and receiving the award for all. I was invited, as I am one of the "honorees" from McVeigh's team. I'm not attending, but I appreciate the effort they made. Not only did they send several letters and brochures with an invitation, they followed up by phone a few times to ask me if I would attend. What is the award for?

Through very difficult and challenging times, these men and women brought justice and hope to the people of Oklahoma, and the nation following the largest domestic terrorist attack on American soil. The investigation, two federal trials and one state trial that followed were historic in scope. Above all, a fair trial was of paramount importance.

I sincerely appreciate the honor. But I also feel compelled to point out it is the job of the prosecutor to seek justice. The duty of the defense lawyer is to protect the rights of the accused, and represent him or her zealously and to the best of our ability. I believe every member of our team did that, with pride and dedication. But considering our client was convicted and executed, while we may have, as the award invitation says, contributed to "bringing hope and justice to the people of Oklahoma", that wasn't the "justice" we had in mind. Justice, in our view, would have been accomplished if McVeigh had been sentenced to life, rather than death.

That being said, the award is a welcome reminder for everyone that without a vigorous defense, there can be no justice. Justice is like a three-legged stool, with one leg being the prosecution, one the defense, and the third the Court. If one leg is weak, the whole stool falls down.

The OKC bombing was a horrific event. It remains the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. 168 people lost their lives, including children. Hundreds were injured. Against that backdrop, two men were charged and put on trial for their lives. One has been executed, and the other has been housed in isolation in a Supermax cell for the past 18 years and will die in prison. A collaborator, who testified against the other two, is at liberty (albeit in the Witness Protection Program) having already served the reduced sentence he got as a reward for his cooperation. It's unknown whether there were more perpetrators or co-conspirators, and likely will never be known. And the event resulted in the passage of one of the most unfair crime bills ever -- AEDPA, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

Today, being the anniversary of the bombing, certainly belongs to the victims and their families, the responders and their community. I have nothing but respect for the way the community has bonded together, and with much dignity, moved forward with their lives. The OKC National Memorial and Museum is an incredible project. It has justly earned the support and respect of the nation.

My thoughts today, as I think about McVeigh, are with the defense team for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who will be trying to convince the jury this week to spare his life. The death penalty is not my view of justice. It is merely retribution. And as we should all know, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

Today is not only the anniversary of the OKC bombing, but of the disastrous raid at WACO in 1993 that killed 80 people, including children. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

My thoughts today are also about how little we have learned in the last 20 years about the marginalized and disaffected among us, whose grievances with our country are not adequately addressed and grow so large, they resort to horrendous acts of violence with devastating consequences felt for decades.

Perhaps if we made a greater effort to understand their grievances, and either addressed or at least acknowledged them, instead of responding to every potential threat with a punitive response like arrest and jail, we would make more progress. Prevention should be as important as punishment, but it is an effort that will require much greater funding of mental health treatment and far less reliance on militarized police response, undercover stings, and intrusions on all of our civil liberties.

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    And don't forget that a year later, in April 1996 (none / 0) (#1)
    by Peter G on Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 09:57:32 PM EST
    Congress responded with the gawd-awful Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") that totally screwed up the federal habeas corpus process for state prisoners, not limited to those dealing with unjust and unconstitutional death penalties.

    I mentioned that (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 10:41:52 PM EST
    You may have missed it.

    And the event resulted in the passage of one of the most unfair crime bills ever -- AEDPA, the  Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

    McVeigh (none / 0) (#3)
    by Uncle Chip on Mon Apr 20, 2015 at 11:01:16 AM EST
    MJ: Do you think the full truth about the Oklahoma City bombing will ever come to light?

    RN: Probably not. Evidence was lost or destroyed, and we killed the guy the jury said had all the answers.

    Some of our worst murderers sit on death row for 20 years and yet there was a rush to execute McVeigh post haste. Why???

    There was no viable explanation for why the rush to execute.

    They said that his execution would mitigate the pain of survivors and yet the only thing that ever does that is bringing ALL involved in the crime to the bar of justice.

    There was talk at the time of the pursuit of other accomplices from overseas -- and yet his execution ended that pursuit.

    My suspicion is that he was offered a non-negotiable deal -- the names of others involved in return for more time in the land of the never ending appeals before execution, the only thing the authorities had left to offer.

    After he tried to negotiate, or sent them on wild goose chases, and started to play games, they quickly pulled the plug.  

    Yes, there was an explanation: (none / 0) (#4)
    by NYShooter on Tue Apr 21, 2015 at 12:15:49 AM EST
    "There was no viable explanation for why the rush to execute."
    After going through his first appeal, which was denied, McVeigh dropped his remaining appeals, saying that he would rather die than spend the rest of his life in prison.