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Oklahoma City Prosecutor Depicts a 'Twisted' McVeigh

By Lois Romano and Tom Kenworthy
The Washington Post
DENVER

Repeatedly assailing Timothy J. McVeigh as "twisted," a federal prosecutor Thursday portrayed the accused Oklahoma City bomber as a calculating terrorist whose warped sense of patriotism drove him to kill 168 people in hopes of starting a popular uprising against the federal government.

"In plain and simple terms, it was an act of terror," Joseph Hartzler told the rapt jury during opening arguments, his voice at times cracking with emotion. "The man who committed this act is sitting in this courtroom behind me. He is the one who committed those murders."

Countering the government's richly detailed portrayal of McVeigh's escalating hatred of the government, McVeigh's lawyer, Stephen Jones, proclaimed his client's innocence and argued that McVeigh's political views fell within the "political and social mainstream."

McVeigh, sporting a bright blue plaid shirt, listened intently in a courtroom packed with 150 people as Jones conceded to jurors that McVeigh was "extremely upset" over what he viewed as government abuses of individual liberty. But, Jones insisted, it was no different from how "millions of people fear and distrust the government."

The sharply contrasting views of McVeigh, 29, came two years and five days after a massive truck bomb sheared off the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 149 adults and 19 children, injuring more than 500 others, and forever shattering the nation's sense of immunity from terrorism. The trial is likely to last several months. McVeigh's co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, facing identical murder and conspiracy charges that could also bring the death penalty, will be tried separately.

Hartzler, who has multiple sclerosis and addressed the jury of seven men and five women from a wheelchair, zeroed in on McVeigh's alleged motives. He charged that McVeigh, after his discharge from the Army, blew up the building to avenge the federal assault on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993. And for the first time, he revealed fresh evidence collected from McVeigh in the hours after his arrest, 75 miles from Oklahoma City on the day of the blast.

There was an excerpt found in McVeigh's car from "The Turner Diaries," the far-right novel that advocates a violent uprising against a seemingly oppressive government. "The real value of our attack lies in the psychological impact, not in the immediate casualties," Hartzler read from the excerpt. The T-shirt McVeigh wore at the time of his arrest, said Hartzler, also "broadcast his intentions." On the front was a likeness of Abraham Lincoln and on the back a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Drops of scarlet blood dripped from a picture of a tree.

Traces of residue from a detonator cord, the prosecutor said, were found on McVeigh's shirt, in the pockets of his pants and on a set of earplugs found in his pocket.

Hartzler also read from an incriminating document found on a computer file McVeigh had created at the home of his sister, Jennifer, who will testify for the government. "All you tyrannical (expletive), you'll swing in the wind one day for your treasonous attacks against the Constitution of the United States," Hartzler quoted from the file. "Die, you spineless, cowardice bastards."

The prosecutor began his remarks with the dramatic recounting of how an idyllic spring day in Oklahoma City turned into a nightmare when McVeigh allegedly parked a Ryder truck he had rented two days before in front of a federal building swarming with government workers. He told the story of 16-month-old Tevin Garrett, who was dropped off at the Murrah building day-care center shortly before the blast. He spoke of how Tevin had cried and clung to his mother, and how she and other parents could look up at the plate glasses windows in front of the Murrah building to wave goodbye to their children.

"It was almost as if you could reach up and touch the children," Hartzler said. "None of those parents ever touched their children again while they were alive." (Fifteen of the 21 children in the second-floor day-care center were killed by the blast.) McVeigh, Hartzler said, "chose to take their innocent lives to serve his own twisted purposes."