Death penalty dilemma faces Oklahoma jury

The Coloradans called for jury service in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, like the rest of us in court, had all seen the TV film and photographs of Timothy McVeigh, the mass murder suspect in an orange prison jumpsuit with shorn hair and staring eyes.

"I just saw that picture of him they showed over and over," said Juror 655, a woman in her sixties. Yet here he was in the flesh, nodding a polite hello and half-rising in his chair as he was introduced. He looked younger than 28, in brown suede shoes, khaki trousers and a mauve-blue shirt with an open collar.

He sat casually at the defence table, neither shackled nor in a dock. Jury selection in the Oklahoma City trial at times resembled some macabre, very American gong show, complete with comic breaks. The first of several hundred likely to be vetted ranged from a churchgoing "personal shopper" to an unemployed pipe-fitter who took the truth only from God, and was, therefore, ineligible.

They were quizzed about how much they watched the OJ trial, brothers in the police force and how much they surfed the Internet. They talked about their mental breakdowns and how often they liked to jog. But the main question was whether they were prepared to sentence the young man sitting opposite to death.

"How does the notion of a government-ordered execution strike you?" a prosecutor asked Juror 855, who was posted near Cambridge with her Air Force husband and got much of her news, she said, from Reader's Digest and Garden and Home magazine. "In the right circumstances, I believe it's right," she said firmly.

The drawn-out jury selection process is a much-criticised part of the great American trial. Lawyers use it to probe for potential jurors' foibles, even as they cosy up to them in the only chance they will have to talk to them directly.

Mr McVeigh seemed watchful but remarkably relaxed, neither nervous nor at a loss. At times, he studied the jurors' questionnaires, his fingers laced together. Even in this emotionally charged setting, with 168 people dead and grieving relatives in court, the hearing ran from the mundane to moments of absurd comedy.

Juror 630 had been hospitalised for two breakdowns, and complained of stress. "You're not the only one that gets heart palpitations and shortness of breath in front of Judge Matsch," Mr McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, told her, in one of several quips aimed at the judge. Under voir dire rules, Judge Richard Matsch and law-yers for both sides must find 64 jurors who are "death qualified" - willing to pass a sentence of death - and not biased or unfit.

Both defence and prosecution then have the chance to "bounce" 20 people for no reason, aiming to winnow the numbers down to 12 jurors and six alternates. The prosecution says it will take two weeks to sit a jury. The defence, promising a rigorous examination in the light of pre-trial news reports that Mr McVeigh confessed, says four. Mr McVeigh's team includes the jury consultants who helped win a not-guilty verdict in the celebrity rape trial of William Kennedy Smith.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, US Attorney General Janet Reno promised that the culprits would face the ultimate penalty.

If the jury in the Federal court finds him guilty, they must then consider the death penalty in a separate hearing.