A Conversation With Joseph Hartzler
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: It has been more than two years since the Hartzler boys have had their dad’s undivided attention; two years since the whole family could enjoy a leisurely game Uno around the kitchen table. That’s because Dad is 46-year-old U.S. Attorney Joseph Hartzler, the man who headed the man who headed the federal team that prosecuted and convicted
Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This is how Hartzler’s family saw him much of the time–the same way the rest of the nation did–coming and going from the federal court house in Denver. Until Federal Judge Richard Matsch imposed a gag order on all trial participants, McVeigh’s attorneys used every available opportunity to talk to the TV cameras.
STEPHEN JONES, McVeigh’s Attorney: I have just a moment. But CBS asked me to come outside, so I did do so.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But not Hartzler. His prosecution team shunned media exposure of any kind. All the press usually got was a smile, a wave or a bit of sports banter from the quiet lead prosecutor. One of the only times Joseph Hartzler had anything to say about the trial in public was on June 2, the day Timothy McVeigh was convicted.
JOSEPH HARTZLER: I’m not going to answer any questions. All I want to say on behalf of the entire prosecution team and all the federal agencies that supported this prosecution we thank the victims for their patience and dignity throughout this long ordeal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today, Hartzler is back in Springfield, IL, where we goes to work every day as an assistant U.S. attorney. He’s trying to catch up on all those things he missed–coaching the boys’ Little League Teams, just hanging out with his family. Lisa Hartzler says it’s been a lonely, hard two years without him, but she’s proud of what he has done.
LISA HARTZLER: I couldn’t feel sorry for myself or our family because it wasn’t about us or what we were sacrificing for this endeavor. It really was about. the survivors and the victims, the process of justice.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You glad he did it?
LISA HARTZLER: Yes. He did a good job.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hartzler was working at his desk that morning in April 1995 when the bomb went off. As the day wore on and the death toll mounted, he says he decided then and there he wanted to help prosecute whoever was responsible, so he volunteered. That spring, as the Justice Department’s search committee mulled over who should be on the prosecution team, Hartzler was named Father of the Year by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and invited to the White House. Then, just three days after that, he was not only named to the prosecution team, he was put in charge of it. But the appointment was not made until he assured Attorney General Janet Reno, her staff, and himself that he could handle the demands of such a monumental case in spite of his Multiple Sclerosis.
JOSEPH HARTZLER: I ask myself that about everything I do. And every time I find that voice in the back of my brain telling me well maybe you can’t do it, I immediately change and grab onto the voice that says or asks would you do it if you didn’t have MS? And other than water skiing, mountain climbing, and things of that sort, the answer is always yes, you would do it, if you didn’t have MS. And that was the answer I gave here. I think it was important for me that they understand that I, what my abilities were, and what my limitations were, and so I made it clear to them, as I made it clear to everybody, my limitations really are in terms of mobility. But as I’ve said you know, the limitations on mobility are just a matter of degree. I can never leap tall buildings in a single bound, still can’t. My mobility is limited but I get around well on a scooter or a wheelchair, other than that I’m normal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although he could not discuss issues that might interfere with the upcoming trial of co-defendant Terry Nichols, Hartzler spoke with the NewsHour about his role in the McVeigh trial.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A great deal was made going into this about pre-trial publicity, and the defense was concerned that perhaps Mr. McVeigh couldn’t get a fair trial because there were so many people in the jury pool that knew something about the case going in. From your perspective was that a problem, in the end?
JOSEPH HARTZLER: Once we got into the courtroom and had an opportunity to question the jurors it was abundantly clear that for the most part, the jurors were extremely reasonable, able to put aside things that they had heard, rumors that they’d heard, things of that sort. Oh, we had tremendous confidence in the jury process, selection process. The amazing thing to us and I think more amazing to the media was to sit in the courtroom to listen to jury selection and hear people had a general sense of the matter, they knew the case had been moved to Denver, they couldn’t provide you with details whatsoever. So there was a sense in the media that, oh, gee, this case has gotten so much media attention the jurors are just going to be almost indoctrinated with the flood of information that’s been out there, when, in reality, jurors came in and said, well, I’ve heard very little and what I’ve heard I’ve put aside and worse yet for the media, a lot of people said I don’t believe that stuff anyway, when I read the newspapers and see it on television. So I think that’s a media centric concern that is not shared by the general public.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What was the strongest piece of evidence the prosecution had against Mr. McVeigh?
JOSEPH HARTZLER: Well, obviously we put together a case much like you would build a wall of bricks. There was a brick here, a brick there with a lot of mortar in between, and in the end we had a very solid brick wall. So it’s a little unfair for me to select one particular piece of evidence as being as having more importance than another.
But obviously that fact that he’d been arrested 78 miles from the scene of the bombing, 77 minutes after the bombing was a pretty significant circumstance. I mean, that prevented him from being able to claim, or his lawyers from being able to claim that, well, some guy that they arrested five days later in Tennessee couldn’t have–might not have committed this crime, they just didn’t have that–there was no alibi possibility. Everyone in the world knew, everyone who watched where he was on the day of the bombing, shortly after the bombing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Was there any point at which you thought things might fall apart, especially when all of the publicity came out about the FBI lab, and supposedly tainted evidence?
JOSEPH HARTZLER: Never. I had complete confidence from day one. The hardest part was not being able to talk about it. My remarks to the media at that point was, I want this case to be tried in a courtroom, not the media, and I did not talk about the evidence before the trial. The other prosecutors on the team did not talk about the evidence in the trial.
We would go into court, occasionally we would report or reiterate what had happened in court, but even with the victims, it was hardest for them because they would come, in effect, sort of not pleading, but really needing some reassurance that things were going well, that we had the right guy, in terms of McVeigh–I’m not talking about the co-defendant–in terms of McVeigh, that we had the right guy. And I would say to them, don’t worry, you’re just going to have to trust us here, don’t worry, and I would not say to them going to be found guilty, there’s no need for you to be concerned about it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For you as a prosecutor, is it really when it boils down in the end, a question of getting the bad guys.
JOSEPH HARTZLER: Yes, well, not just getting the bad guys, getting the bad guys and deterring others. And I mean I think that this is a crime in which there will be deterrence.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You do?
JOSEPH HARTZLER: On terrorism, sure. Yes. Terrorism is a very rational act, thought out, planned, premeditated, and if terrorists appreciate that there are consequences to their actions, there are a lot of people that are on the fringe and not as committed as others who are going to be chilled in that interest.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What happens now for Joseph Hartzler?
JOSEPH HARTZLER: Well, you know, there’s this assumption that when you get involved in one of these things that it’s somehow a stepping stone to something bigger, that you did it out of ambition or desire for money, or something, fame and prestige, and I just didn’t wasn’t ever motivated for those reasons, so, I am very happy with what I do. I moved to Springfield, Illinois to prosecute cases in the federal system, and I’ve returned to that now, thoroughly enjoy my work. And I expect I will continue to do that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Are you going to write a book?
JOE HARTZLER: I don’t have any intention of writing a book. If I wrote a book, it would probably be a children’s book or some work of fiction, but I’m not going to write about the trial.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why not?
JOE HARTZLER: Well, I think that a lot of the hype that surrounded some other cases really dis-serves the process. I think that this case was presented with the appropriate dignity and solemnity and I hope that that’s the memory that stays with the case, ever after. I’ve always had pretty much the long view on this, I guess you could say, you know, coming in I’ve said, well I hope that I could make a difference. One of the things I knew that I would do is not try to personally capitalize on it by writing a book or whatever some people would do, and it