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Denver pulls out stops for bomb trial

Surrounded by concrete barricades and a small squadron of police cars, the Byron White Federal Courthouse had taken on the look of a modern fortress yesterday.

Timothy McVeigh was spirited inside in the early hours of Saturday morning, in a motorcade from his nearby jail. But as Denver prepared for the months- long trial of the man accused of the Oklahoma City bombing, it seemed more alert to the invading hordes of journalists than to any right-wing terrorist threat.

As jury selection gets underway today, there is a sense of civic pride in the air. For better or worse, the trial of a man accused of killing 168 people in an act of domestic terrorism is helping Denver assert itself as a grown-up capital of the new American West.

For the next two to three weeks, defence and prosecution will pick and probe among potential jurors who could sentence Mr McVeigh to death. Of 1,000 people originally called, two-thirds have already been excused for reasons of health or hardship.

Denver learned 13 months ago that it would be the venue for the trial, moved from Oklahoma after Judge Richard Matsch ruled that Mr McVeigh had been "demonised" in that state. Despite recent news reports that Mr McVeigh had confessed to his own lawyers, Judge Matsch rejected repeated demands that the trial be delayed last week, saying he was confident that a "fair- minded jury can and will be empanelled".

While polls show large majorities of Americans believe Mr McVeigh will and should be found guilty, the defence holds out some hope. Local polls say 55 per cent of Colorado people have not made up their minds.

The rival Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post newspapers have been scrupulously even-handed. They have been careful to give equal time to the defence attorney, Stephen Jones, as he claims a coterie of far-right revolutionaries and international terrorists - from the IRA to an Islamic terrorist cell based in the Philippines - were involved in the bomb plot.

The grand jury that indicted Mr McVeigh and his co-defendant Terry Nichols, to be tried later, said they conspired to blow up the building with "others unknown".

Mr Jones demanded last week that the government turn over its information on "foreign terrorists" involved. In a sharp exchange, the lead prosecutor, Joseph Hartzler, said defence submissions read "like a bad Hollywood script", and promised the prosecution would trash this "pulp fiction" in court.

In a lengthy court filing last week, the defence named Dennis Mahon, a former leader of the white Aryan resistance in Oklahoma, as a key figure in a conspiracy that also involved Sinn Fein. Andreas Strassmeir, a German neo-Nazi who lived with Mr Mahon at Elohim City, a far-right Christian compound in Oklahoma, had received a detonator from Sinn Fein, the defence claimed. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams yesterday called the link "preposterous rubbish".

Security for the trial will cost Denver half a million dollars in police overtime, Mayor Wellington Webb said this week, and will block downtown streets.

In the past decade, Denver has seen extraordinary growth; this June, it will host the Group of Eight summit, along with a national convention of 6,500 oncologists. "Denver has a reputation, that it's outgrown, of being a cow town," said Eric Anderson, a former Denver Post journalist who has handled public relations for some of the state's top political figures. "People are getting used to seeing satellite trucks in their driveway."