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McVeigh Trial Becomes American Morality Play

Much-publicized case tests court's ability to seat fair jury

The case of United States v. Timothy James McVeigh, which begins here today, could well become one of the most famous American legal proceedings of the late 20th century.

One big reason: It has the elements not just of a gripping trial, but of a powerful morality play.

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On one side is a young ex-soldier who professes disdain for the federal government and the very process he faces. On the other are prosecutors who know well that Americans want to feel they've learned the truth about a terror attack that shook the nation's sense of security.

And out of this melange, the US legal system is charged with producing justice.

Mr. McVeigh has been charged with murder and conspiracy in the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City blast that killed 168 and injured 500. As the curtain rises in a federal courtroom today, only one thing is certain: It's going to be a long show.

Jury selection alone is expected to take several weeks. It's a process designed to ensure that only fair-minded Americans will judge the case - a daunting task in view of the immense pretrial publicity. US District Judge Richard Matsch has authorized an extended "voir dire" - the process wherein potential jurors are examined. Once that's done, opening arguments will begin, followed by months of technical evidence and eyewitness testimony. A verdict before midsummer is unlikely.

McVeigh, one of two men charged in the bombing, faces the death penalty if convicted. He pleads not guilty and says he wants to take the stand to convince jurors of that. For his lawyers, the question is whether the government has irrefutable evidence to establish guilt.

By any standard, the government appears to have done its homework - and then some - in preparing the prosecution case. In the 23 months since the blast, federal investigators have collected roughly 100,000 pieces of evidence - including nearly 30,000 witness statements, mountains of photographs and tapes, and nearly 500 FBI lab reports. The cost for assembling the case against McVeigh and his alleged accomplice, Terry Nichols - who will stand trial later - approaches $30 million.

The most damaging forensic evidence against McVeigh includes bomb residue detected on his clothing, a knife he carried, and earplugs recovered from his car. Eyewitness reports link him to the rental of the Ryder truck responsible for the explosion. McVeigh's fingerprint is on a receipt for 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer - a substance that can be used to create a truck bomb. Telephone records trace calls from McVeigh to anti-government militia groups prior to the blast, as well as to businesses selling chemicals, detonation cords, and remote control switches.

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Not an open-and-shut case

But even as a heap of circumstantial evidence is poised to tumble down on McVeigh, the government's case is by no means open-and-shut. And despite a plethora of media accounts of the bombing - including a recent stream of alleged confessions by McVeigh to his lawyers - the case remains flush with unknowns: Did the FBI lab botch critical forensic tests of evidence? Was the elusive "John Doe No. 2" - whom investigators have yet to locate - a central force behind the blast? Did the federal investigation go far enough to rule out a larger conspiracy?

Any uncertainty could be enough to plant doubt in a juror's mind, observers believe. "My sense is that the defense is going to pick the government case apart, and try to look for reasonable doubt," says Michael Katz, a federal public defender in Colorado and former state prosecutor. "I've seen doubt created by one fact."

The defense, for its part, enters this trial with every confidence the prosecution can't make its case stick. "I can challenge the government's 'facts,' and the interpretation the government puts on those facts," lead defense attorney Stephen Jones says with characteristic boldness. The only elements of the prosecution case he can't challenge, he says, are that his client was in Oklahoma City prior to the bombing and has at times expressed a "dislike of the federal government." But neither of these facts indicates guilt, says Mr. Jones.

FBI lab's work questioned

The reliability of forensic tests performed by the FBI crime laboratory is one weak link the defense is expected to exploit. "Some of the science in this case is being seriously challenged," observes Christopher Mueller, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in evidence and court procedure.

According to a draft report from the Justice Department inspector general, the FBI crime lab made "scientifically unsound" conclusions "biased in favor of the prosecution" in the bombing case, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. In addition, an FBI chemist last year blew the whistle on the lab for allegedly tainting test samples and drawing inaccurate conclusions.

The credibility of key eyewitnesses is also likely to play a leading role in defense strategy, Mr. Mueller says: Two witnesses have criminal records and another reportedly has blurred vision.

All the same, the prosecution is far from concerned. "These issues are not going to affect the prosecution," says Justice Department spokeswoman Leesa Brown.

For now, the looming struggle for the defense is seating a jury unaware of, or unaffected by, media reports of the bombing. "The publicity has been pretty one-sided," says Denver attorney Scott Robinson. "So if someone comes in with an opinion, it's likely to be in favor of prosecution."

Reacting to that threat, Stephen Jones made several attempts in recent weeks to have the trial delayed or moved. All requests were rejected.

But the appeals court did leave the door open to delay future proceedings if examination of potential jurors bears out Jones's fears that pretrial publicity has poisoned the jury pool. "We would not categorically foreclose future review," the three-member panel ruled.

As for McVeigh's alleged confession statements, which have been widely reported, Jones says: "They are inconsistent with the known, undisputed facts. And they are inconsistent with each other."

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