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Oklahoma Bombing Trial Begins; Emotions Run High

By Richard A. Serrano
Los Angeles Times
OKLAHOMA CITY

They came to court carrying pictures of their dead, more than 100 of them braving zero temperatures and crowding before dawn Tuesday into the federal courthouse here, determined in their unity to show a judge that Oklahoma citizens should decide the Oklahoma bombing case.

Doris Jones clutched a studio portrait of her daughter, Carrie Lenz, a federal drug agency employee who was six months pregnant when the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building took her life and her child's.

"Her picture goes with me everywhere I go," her mother said. "I have another one in the car. She never leaves my sight."

Glenn Seidl wore a baseball cap with six gold stars for the six Secret Service employees killed in the building, including his wife, Kathy. And Dan McKinney -- who lost his wife, Linda, and his niece, Shelly Bland -- wore a T-shirt with his wife's picture on the front and on the back, a photo of the bombed-out Murrah building and the pledge: "Gone But Not Forgotten."

"That's all I have," he said. "Pictures and memories."

Tuesday marked the beginning of a pivotal, weeklong series of hearings to decide where Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols should be tried for the April 19 bombing, in which 169 people were killed and 600 injured.

Prosecutors insist a fair trial can be held in Oklahoma, in either Lawton or Tulsa. Defense attorneys, alarmed at the deep currents of loss and hatred that still roil through this community, suggest Albuquerque, Denver or Kansas City, Kan., as more impartial sites.

Judge Richard Matsch of Denver, assigned to hear the case, has indicated that he will decide soon on where the trial will go.

"Obviously it's a matter of importance to a lot of people, so I'll try to do it promptly," the judge said when he arrived Monday at the Oklahoma City airport.

Regardless of where the trial ultimately is held, it will bring with it grave repercussions for the nation.

No trial of its kind with so many victims has ever been played out anywhere in the country. The bombing was the worst terrorist attack on American soil, and where and how the trial is held could very well set precedents on how similarly devastating cases are handled in the future.

In addition, as prosecutors argue and much of the court testimony bore out on Tuesday, polls of potential jurors show that harsh feelings of anger and retribution run high against the defendants. And Oklahoma is not alone in its anger and outrage.

"New Yorkers are off the charts," testified Donald E. Vinson, a trial consultant from Los Angeles. "They were particularly angry about this."

That kind of testimony appeared to bolster the government's contention that the entire nation was "victimized" by the terrorist attack and that, therefore, the trial should just as well be held in Oklahoma as anywhere else.

Argued U.S. Attorney Pat Ryan: "The defense has not, cannot and will not prove that the state of Oklahoma does not have 12 jurors and six alternates who can fairly and impartially hear this case. Our evidence will satisfy the court that a fair trial can be held in Oklahoma."

Ryan and his prosecution team also demand a state trial because so many of the hundreds of victims and relatives cannot afford to travel far to attend a proceeding out of state. Attending the trial is their right, Ryan said, "and we want to accommodate that right as much as possible."

But defense attorneys said the Oklahoma community is so traumatized that residents throughout the state would be unable to fairly judge McVeigh and Nichols.

"April 19, 1995, is the event by which time thereafter is measured," said Nichols' attorney Michael E. Tigar.

To demonstrate their point, defense lawyers showed the judge 45 minutes of highlights from local television reports dealing with the bombing, the arrests of McVeigh and Nichols and the deep hatred that has risen out of the blast.

While the video played, McVeigh and Nichols fidgeted in their chairs. Cries were heard among the victims and their families, some so torn that they had to leave the courtroom. McVeigh's sister, Jennifer, attending her first court appearance in support of her brother, wept quietly.

Tigar also showed the videotape of a TV news interview with Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating that aired here last month.

Keating said that "what the people of Oklahoma want" are convictions and executions of the defendants and that the decision to appoint Matsch as an out-town-judge over an Oklahoma judge "chilled my blood."

The anger here does indeed run deep.

Edye Smith, the mother of two young boys killed in the Murrah building day care center, came to the courthouse to set eyes on McVeigh and Nichols. Afterward, she said while her Christian heart allows forgiveness, she nonetheless believes they are guilty.

"They're on a one-way train straight to hell," she said.