TOPICS > Politics

Background: Expedient Prosecution

May 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We begin tonight with the Oklahoma City bombing trial. The prosecution rested its case today after 18 days, having presented 137 witnesses. Betty Ann Bowser begins our coverage with this report on what they said.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The government ended its case the way it began, dramatically with the testimony of a survivor. Florence Rogers was in a meeting in the credit union on the third floor when she and her fellow workers felt a tornado-like force. “When I was able to stand up,” she said, “all the girls in the office with me had totally disappeared.”

The prosecution opened its case on April 25th, by playing an audio tape of a public hearing that was taking place across the street from the Murrah Building when the bomb went off. (sounds of explosion) Then the prosecution brought on a parade of witnesses who either lost loved ones or survived the blast. Lawyers on both sides, members of the jury and spectators in the courtroom had tears in their eyes, as Helena Garrett described her frantic search for her 16-month-old son, Tevin, who was killed in the daycare center on the second floor.

Although no witness could place McVeigh in Oklahoma City on the morning of April 19th, state trooper Charles Hanger told the jury he pulled the defendant over about 75 miles North of the city in this car just an hour and a half after the bombing. Hanger said the car had no license plate, and he arrested McVeigh for having an automatic weapon in his possession. Anti-government literature was also found in the car, Hanger said, along with a business card with the handwritten notation, “TNT at $5 a stick. Need more.” FBI chemist Steven Burmeister told the jury traces of high explosives were found on the clothing McVeigh was wearing at the time he was arrested but under cross-examination, Burmeister admitted the clothing was sent to the FBI lab in a paper bag, instead of the standard sealed plastic envelope.

Other witnesses testified in the months before the bombing that McVeigh contacted them looking for bomb components, and Eldon Elliott, who owns an auto body shop in Junction City, Kansas, said he had no doubt that a man who identified himself as Robert Kling and rented a Ryder truck several days before the bombing was, in fact, Timothy McVeigh. His sister, Jennifer, said six months before the bombing her brother had told her that he was taking his hatred of the government for its role at Waco from the propaganda stage to the action stage.

The government’s two star witnesses were a married couple, Laurie and Michael Fortier, close friends of McVeigh’s. Laurie Fortier told the jury that McVeigh showed her how he intended to build a bomb to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Testifying under immunity from prosecution, she described how McVeigh got out soup cans and arranged them the way the barrels would be in the truck, but when defense attorney Stephen Jones cross-examined her for three hours, she admitted she was a drug user and said she had repeatedly lied about McVeigh until she faced legal action from the FBI. Jones asked, “All you had to do to prevent death for these 168 people was to pick up the telephone?” Fortier: “Yes.” Jones: “And you did not do that, did you?” Fortier: “No.”

Michael Fortier, a former army buddy and friend of McVeigh’s for nine years, described how he and the defendant drove to Oklahoma City and surveyed the Murrah Building four months before the bombing. Fortier said McVeigh showed him where he planned to park his getaway car. And he said McVeigh justified killing innocent people because they were storm troopers for the federal government, guilty by association for the deaths at Waco. Like his wife, Fortier said under cross-examination that he had lied about McVeigh because he was scared and he admitted he had used drugs. The defense suggested the couple made up their stories in order to get reduced sentences. Michael Fortier faces up to 23 years in prison, but the government can reduce his sentence for his cooperation. The defense will begin its case tomorrow and is expected to call some 40 witnesses.