The Complicated Defense of Timothy McVeigh

The Oklahoma City bombing case is closed, the official story written, and Timothy McVeigh is dead. Still, McVeigh's attorney, Robert Nigh, has some questions, and some answers, too.

| Wed Aug. 1, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Twelve years ago a bomb killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Within hours law enforcement officials released sketches of two suspects—John Doe No. 1 and John Doe No. 2. Former U.S. Army Sergeant Timothy McVeigh, John Doe No. 1, was charged within two days of the bombing. However, No. 2 remained at large. Four months later McVeigh and Terry Nichols—who was never suspected of being John Doe No. 2—were indicted, the government claiming the conspiracy to bomb the federal building was limited to just those two men.

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Robert Nigh, one of McVeigh's defense attorneys, who has practiced criminal law for 21 years, says there's more to it. And 7,000 pages of documents and the death of a federal inmate shed light on what may have been a much larger plot involving an ultra-right-wing community in rural Oklahoma, a German weapons trainer, and a band of white supremacists known as the Midwest Bank Robbers.

A decade after the case closed, mysteries about the Oklahoma City bombing remain (see "In Search of John Doe No. 2"). Recently, Mother Jones spoke to Nigh from his office in Tulsa to discuss his most famous client, the holes in our justice system, and his take on the second-deadliest terror attack on American soil.

Mother Jones: What did you learn from Tim McVeigh's trial?

Robert Nigh: One of the things I learned through Tim's case was that magnitude of the allegation does not change the fundamentals of the way the criminal justice system works or the principles by which you are supposed to operate. The government's case did not establish that Tim was responsible for the bombing. It rested on what so many state and federal prosecutions rest upon—the testimony of unreliable informants, people whose testimony has been paid for by the federal government through immunity or lenience.
I thought it was going to be different when I went into it. I thought, "The prosecutors are going to dot their i's and cross their t's and the FBI was going to do its job properly." I was wrong. The FBI withheld evidence until three weeks before Tim's scheduled execution. On 16 separate occasions, the prosecution represented, on the record, to the court that they had turned over to the defense every document relating to the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. Sixteen times they lied about that.

MJ: And you believed that they were withholding information all along? What tipped you off?

RN: There were just too many gaps, too many leads that we knew were worthy of pursuit and were not pursued. It wasn't logical. It wasn’t consistent with how the government operates.

MJ: Carol Howe was a paid informant who overheard plans to bomb a building in Oklahoma City. You were unable to put her on the stand. Do you think the U.S. government, through informants, knew about plans to bomb the Murrah building beforehand?

RN: I would be speculating. My best answer is, I hope not. That doesn't mean that I believe the investigation was conducted the way it should have been or that legitimate leads were not pursued. The whole idea of informants is troublesome to me anyway. Our history is rife with infiltration of organizations, not because they were a threat to commit a crime but because their political ideology was adverse to the people in power. It scares me. I can’t say that it's not sometimes a legitimate law enforcement tool, but it scares me.

MJ: Can you describe the stonewalling that you encountered from the government?

RN: One example is in regards to explosives testing. In order to prepare for the trial it was a good idea to do some testing on the explosive materials in order to determine whether what the government claimed Tim and Terry had access to could do that kind of damage that was done to the Murrah building. They were doing forensic testing in New Mexico in order to test ANFO [ammonium nitrate/fuel oil] bombs. We obtained an order to be present for explosives testing and to have our expert observe them. They set up a major test and gave us notice. I went down with my expert and they put us on a hill two miles away with a pair of binoculars. It was like, You gotta be kidding me. That was the kind of game they loved to play.

MJ: What about the FBI and its level of cooperation?

RN: We were doing our own investigation and conducted our own witness interviews. We would find out that the reports we were getting from the FBI were not squaring up with the reports we were getting from our own investigators. In addition, if they didn't want us to get certain documents relating to the bombing investigation, they would put them in a file with a different number, meaning we would never find them.

MJ: What was the most valuable thing that should have been provided for you but wasn't?

RN: There were additional indications of connections to the right-wing community in Elohim City and there was some additional information in reference to the Midwest Bank Robbers. We did not have time to run them all to ground before Tim was dead.

MJ: Several FBI teletypes reveal that the FBI was actively investigating these connections while they were publicly saying that McVeigh was the sole mastermind behind the bombing.

RN: None of them were turned over prior to trial. I think that I did see the January 4, 1996 document in 2001, when thousands of documents were finally turned over. It was part of 6,000 or 7,000 pages that the government withheld. The documents detailing these connections were entirely new to us.

MJ: The fact that documents were not turned over is a clear case of prosecutorial misconduct. You filed an appeal based on the violation, but were unsuccessful. If you had succeeded in getting a new trial, do you think the documents would have made a difference regarding McVeigh's death sentence?

RN: They could have had a huge impact. If Tim McVeigh was not the mastermind and the person primarily responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, but was merely a pawn in a larger conspiracy, that would have had a huge mitigating effect. The Supreme Court says role in the offense is something the jury must consider in determining whether or not to impose the death penalty.

MJ: Do you think that if you had more time and the appeals could have run their course, you would have had success later on?

RN: I can't say that I have seen a document to this day that was going to change the result of the trial. It doesn't mean that I'm saying it doesn't exist. Frankly, I quit looking.

MJ: The FBI teletypes indicate that McVeigh had connections to Elohim City. Can you describe these connections?

RN: I can only tell you what he said to others. He met Andy Strassmeir at a gun show in Tulsa and telephoned him one time at Elohim city.

MJ: A few months back the BBC aired a documentary about the bombing in which it alleged that Strassmeir was an agent working for NATO or Germany. What do you think about these claims?

RN: [Laughs.] I didn't see the show. Forgive me for laughing but I gotta tell you that I've heard some good ones.

MJ: Absolutely, there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding this case. What is your reaction to them?

RN: There have been suggestions made concerning the involvement of others that are fairly well-grounded and seem to have some objective basis in fact. And then there is wild speculation that is so tangential that you have to wonder about the rationality of the person proposing it.

MJ: Why do you think Strassmeir has become such a prominent figure in conspiracy theories about the bombing?

RN: He did meet Tim—there is no doubt about that. And Tim called him days before the bombing. That's pretty powerful stuff.

MJ: Does it alarm you that Strassmeir was able to leave the country without first being questioned by the FBI?

RN: Well, it raises some interesting questions. Quite frankly there is far too much detention going on without probable cause. That alarms me a lot more. But it is interesting. The government always wanted the case tight—as tight as they could make it. Two guys, no more, let’s not complicate this and screw it up. And interviewing Strassmeir would have complicated it and screwed it up.

MJ: The Midwest Bank Robbers were part of a white supremacist group called the Aryan Republican Army led by Peter Langan and Richard Guthrie. They called for a violent overthrow of the government and allegedly used loot from their robberies to support this aim. As far as you know, did they supply funds for the bombing?

RN: I don't know because they executed my client before I could investigate that aspect of the case. The FBI withheld the documents that would have given me that lead until three weeks before McVeigh was scheduled to die.

MJ: How and when did you first learn about Kenney Trentadue, the prisoner who died at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City on August 21, 1995?

RN: I think pretty directly after it happened.

MJ: You heard about Trentadue's death so soon after it happened, which could indicate that legal circles were making the connection to Oklahoma City very early on, whereas Trentadue's brother didn't make this connection until years later.

RN: You have to remember that FTC is in Oklahoma City, close to where I am. That would have piqued my interest even if I weren't involved with McVeigh.

MJ: Jesse Trentadue, Kenney's brother, believes that federal authorities mistook him for one of the Midwest Bank Robbers and killed him while interrogating him about the Oklahoma City bombing. Was your initial understanding that he was part of the Midwest Bank Robbers?

RN: I thought that was a possibility.

MJ: But you now understand that he had no affiliation with the Midwest Bank Robbers?

RN: Yes, that is my understanding.

MJ: What do you think happened to Kenney Trentadue at the FTC? Why is he dead?

RN: With the caveat that I don't have any hard evidence that anybody else has, it looks to me like the guy was killed and it was covered up.

MJ: What do you think about the fact that the chief medical examiner Fred Jordan ultimately changed his determination of the manner of death?

RN: It kind of makes me sick to my stomach. I don't think the facts changed. I think the politics changed.

MJ: What failures of the legal process where exposed by the death of Kenney Trentadue?

RN: Wow, where do I begin? Failure to preserve evidence, failure to be candid about the facts, failure to cooperate with state authorities who are charged with the responsibility of investigating those circumstances, and the government's failure to hold itself accountable for that misconduct.

MJ: What do you think about Jesse Trentadue and his quest to expose the truth?

RN: I admire him. I think that kind of work is critical to our survival. Somebody's gotta ask the questions and demand the answers. The government not holding itself accountable for its own actions is what leads people to violent acts that are unnecessary.

MJ: What failings on the part of the U.S. government were exposed by the Oklahoma City bombing?

RN: I think that it should help us to realize that when we marginalize people and the government fails to accept responsibility for its misconduct, it causes people to become disillusioned to a dangerous state.

MJ: By misconduct are you referring to Waco and Ruby Ridge?

RN: Absolutely. Or other instances in which there has been government overreach either through illegal searches, illegal interrogations, or illegal detentions. They cause people to want to take matters into their own hands, and that is a tragic result for everyone.

MJ: What failings were exposed by McVeigh's trial?

RN: The short answer is that tragic cases cause us to change the law when we should not and they cause us to change the fundamental principles that we are supposed to live by.

MJ: How do you feel about attorney-client privilege after your client has been executed?

RN: The Supreme Court says, and I tend to agree with it, that the attorney-client privilege survives. I think that it must or you are not going to get candid answers from your client.

MJ: Do you wonder if a greater good could come from making public what you learned about the bombing from your conversations with Tim McVeigh?

RN: No, to me the principle is more important than any information I have that I've gained from Tim.

MJ: Do you think the full truth about the Oklahoma City bombing will ever come to light?

RN: Probably not. Evidence was lost or destroyed, and we killed the guy the jury said had all the answers.

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