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Jury Selection Commences In Trial of Timothy McVeigh

By Lois Romano and Tom Kenworthy
The Washington Post

Amid extraordinarily tight security and a huge news media presence, the trial of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy J. McVeigh opened here yesterday with aggressive questioning of prospective jurors that quickly underscored the difficulty of selecting an unbiased panel.

Almost two years after a massive bomb sheared off the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch, federal prosecutors and attorneys for McVeigh began the tedious process of selecting 12 jurors and six alternates. Only six potential jurors were questioned Monday, and several of them already appeared to pose problems for one side or the other in a case that has drawn enormous pretrial publicity.

Matsch last year ordered the case moved here, saying that the defendants - McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, who will be tried later - could not get a get fair trial in Oklahoma because they had been "demonized." Ironically, the first of 350 prospective jurors questioned Monday was a white man in his forties who was working in Tulsa the day of the blast and who, as a former engineer, was intimately familiar with the type of explosive the government alleges was used in the April 19, 1995, bombing.

Under questioning from attorneys, the potential juror, identified only as No. 853, said he watched the "wall-to-wall, ceiling to floor" news reports of the bombing, and had actually visited the site of the blast before the Murrah building was demolished. "It was very moving and very sad," said the man, now a self-employed investment adviser in Denver. "I think I cried a little."

Another potential juror, No. 630, a woman who identified herself as a personal shopper, had a list of possible problems. She told the court that she has had two nervous breakdowns. Her husband is the director of community corrections for the city of Denver.

McVeigh, facing murder, conspiracy and explosives charges, entered the courtroom this morning in his usual jovial fashion, dressed in a blue shirt and khaki pants and with his hair freshly sheared in a military-style buzz cut.

Cement barricades and steel barriers have been erected around the courthouse, where McVeigh is being held in a basement cell. The downtown street is lined with police cars, and dozens of local and federal police officers are patrolling the streets. More than 2,000 journalists from around the world have been credentialed, but few members of the general public showed up Monday.

A closed-circuit camera has been placed in the newly renovated second-floor courtroom so survivors and relatives of victims can watch from a facility in Oklahoma City. This is apparently the first time a video camera has been allowed in a federal trial. Matsch has prohibited any taping of the feed, and Monday he expressed concern that someone might pirate the signal for commercial broadcast. If someone were to "crack the code," Matsch said, he would immediately interrupt the feed.

McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, who sought to have the case dismissed two weeks ago because of pretrial publicity, quizzed jury pool members relentlessly on how their views about the bombing have been shaped by what they have read or seen on television. All the potential jurors indicated a high level of awareness about the events of April 19 from media reports.

Prosecutors emphasized two areas in their early questioning: whether potential jurors could impose the death penalty in this capital case, and their attitudes toward the federal government, specifically during such events as the standoff against the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, and an earlier one involving white supremacist Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

The government contends that McVeigh, fueled by a seething hatred and mistrust of the government, blew up a building brimming with federal workers to avenge the 1993 government assault on the Branch Davidians. Prosecutors are particularly concerned about potential jurors who might share McVeigh's hostility toward the government, according to sources familiar with their thinking.

"You understand the government is not on trial in this case?" Ryan asked No. 853. Asked about Ruby Ridge and Waco, the prospective juror said he thought the government showed restraint at Waco but was "heavy-handed" at Ruby Ridge.

Over the past month, both sides and the judge have whittled the jury pool down to under 400. During closed sessions, they will reduce the pool further to 64 jurors who agree to consider the death penalty as punishment; the defense and prosecution each may dismiss 20 of them for any reason. After the 12 jurors are picked, six alternates will be chosen with the defense and prosecution given three more peremptory challenges.