Recurring Nightmare: The Trial of Timothy McVeigh
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JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to an Oklahoma City bombing trial update and to Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Timothy McVeigh’s attorneys began their attempt to spare him from execution today. After two and a half days of often emotional testimony, prosecutors rested their death penalty case this morning. So for an update on all of that–of the sentencing phase of the bombing trial we’re joined by Tim Sullivan, senior correspondent with Court TV. Tim, what was the prosecution wind-up like today?
TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: Well, Charlayne, it was more emotional, gut-wrenching testimony this morning, though there were only the final four or five prosecution witnesses. Two of them, in particular, were very emotional. One of them was a police officer, Officer Don Browning, who talked about recurring nightmares he has because he was one of the men who pulled some of the dead children, small children, out of the Murrah Building. And he talked about a recurrent nightmare he has in which he’s crawling through the rubble on his hands and knees in the Murrah Building, following the sounds of children crying, trying to locate them, to save them. And he said at one point in this nightmare the ground below him begins to tremble, and he said that trembling becomes like a monstrous growl, and I get up and I run away. And he said he then wakes with a very strong sense–a deep sense of guilt that he is unable to have located the children. And finally, the last witness was a man by the name of Glenn Silo, whose wife, Kathy, was killed in the bombing. And he read a statement that was written by his nine-year-old son in which his son describes still to this day in school making Mother’s Day cards and valentines for his mother when the other children do so, even though, of course, his mother is gone.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That was the one the judge ruled that the child couldn’t testify, so the father read the letter.
TIM SULLIVAN: That’s right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there any way to judge the cumulative effect of these past two and a half days?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, it’s been very difficult for everybody in the courtroom. And of course, the jurors are the people who are most important in this thing, and they seem to be as strongly as affected as everybody else. There were several times over the past couple of days when six or seven or eight of the jurors would be crying at one time. Many of them were crying this morning, and it obviously took a tough–hard toll on the jury.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And McVeigh’s reactions have not changed substantially over the two and a half days?
TIM SULLIVAN: No, not significantly, Charlayne. He’s very stoic. He doesn’t seem to be moved by this kind of testimony at all. You know, he listens. He’s not disrespectful or anything like that, but he just doesn’t seem to be moved by it at all.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, the defense began its argument today. What did they do? What kind of tack did they take?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, it was very interesting. Richard Burr gave the opening statement on behalf of McVeigh. He’s a defense–a death penalty specialist from Houston, Texas. And he made it clear that what they’re going to try to do over the next few days is humanize Tim McVeigh. He said, “We accept your verdict. At this stage of the trial we must.” And he said, “We are not going to challenge you, and we are not going to challenge the testimony you’ve heard over the past few days from the people who have a right to be as grieved as they are,” he said, “but we want to explain to you how this tragedy could have happened.” He said to the jury it would be very easy for you to think of Timothy McVeigh as a demon, as some kind of monster. We want to help you to understand how he could have come to something like this.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And based–they brought witnesses in today, and they have others. Based on–Tell us a little bit about witnesses, who they are–and what you–what it appears the defense is trying to do with them.
TIM SULLIVAN: Today they began with soldiers, with army buddies of McVeigh, with men who served with McVeigh in the Persian Gulf War and also at Fort Reilly, Kansas, after the Persian Gulf War. And they all talked about Tim McVeigh as an outstanding soldier, as an excellent soldier, the top gun in his platoon. They said they felt safe in the Persian Gulf when they were with him because he was such a good gunner and such a strong soldier. They talked about the fact that he was promoted rapidly way ahead of his class in the army to the rank of sergeant.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what about the other witnesses that they plan to call?
TIM SULLIVAN: The other witnesses we expect to hear from, Mr. Burr said they would be calling Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill McVeigh, to the stand. They’ll be calling some teachers of his. They’ll be calling some friends and neighbors, people who he grew up with. They will not be calling his sister, Jennifer, we did expect to see. She won’t be called in this phase of the trial. And Mr. Burr also said they will put on a lot of testimony about Waco, and they will try to explain to the jury what Timothy McVeigh believed happened at Waco, and how that could have affected him.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, in general, the basic thrust of the defense argument is to present a picture of a man so that he is not demonized.
TIM SULLIVAN: That’s right, Charlayne. Clearly, what they want to do is humanize Tim McVeigh. And we thought that they might take a tack in which they would argue that other people were involved in this conspiracy, and he’s the fall guy, and he had a lesser role, and he shouldn’t be made to pay for what might have been many people involved. It doesn’t look like they’re going to do that now. It looks like they want to do two things; they want to explain that Tim McVeigh is a human being to try to generate some sympathy for him, or at least help the jury see him as a person; and they’re going to spend probably a couple of days on Waco, trying to explain how that event–Richard Burr talked about the deaths of 74 people at WACO–how that event could have driven Timothy McVeigh to the Oklahoma City bombing.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, how did the reactions during the defense portion of the argument today compare with their reaction during the prosecution?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, the jurors listened attentively to the defense argument. None of them seemed to be dismissive of it. They seemed to pay very close attention to the witnesses the defense brought in.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And McVeigh, did his demeanor change at all on–
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, that was interesting, Charlayne. Yeah. His demeanor softened a bit, especially during Richard Burr’s 30-minute opening statement. McVeigh seemed more vulnerable and more frail, perhaps, than he had. You know, he sat there with his hands folded, and then his chin on his hands, as he often does, but he seemed to blush perhaps a little bit, and he seemed a lot more subdued than he often has during this trial.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Just finally, how much longer is the defense expected to take?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, they say they will spend Monday with friends and family of McVeigh, and then I assume that they will get to Waco on Tuesday. It doesn’t–we don’t expect them to go beyond Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Tim Sullivan, thank you.