Jury cast a cold eye on Oklahoma horror

Barraged by emotional appeals from both sides, the seven-man, five-woman jury in the Oklahoma City bombing trial began their deliberations yesterday.

Prosecutors urged them to convict Timothy McVeigh of a cowardly crime of "ghastly proportions". His defence called him a victim of circumstance, "convicted in the court of public opinion" minutes after he was first named as a suspect more than two years ago.

The scales appeared to weigh against the 29-year-old former soldier accused of planting a massive truck bomb outside a US government office building on 19 April 1995, killing 168 people in the worst act of terrorism on US soil.

The defence pleaded with jurors not to let the sheer horror of the crime sway their judgement. If the Denver jury finds McVeigh guilty on murder and conspiracy charges, a separate hearing will follow on whether he merits the death penalty.

The jurors, who have not been identified, were sequest-ered for the first time yesterday to complete their deliberations at a secret location. Jurors in Colorado, where the trial was moved to avoid prejudice to the defendant, have proved reluctant to hand out the death pen-alty, and the state has carried out no executions since 1967. But public sentiment in conservative Oklahoma, to the south, is strongly in favour of capital punishment.

"America stood in shock. Who could do such a thing?" asked prosecutor Larry Mackey, leading the summing-up. "It's a question that began to ripple across this country coast to coast." The answer, he said, was clear: Tim McVeigh. "The truck bomb exploded, the building gave way, and suddenly many lives were ended, and many more were changed for ever."

With TV cameras banned, the trial started at a brisk pace that seldom paused and never descended into farce. Testimonytook just five weeks. The prosecution called 137 witnesses, the defence just 25 in less than four days, both sides surprising spectators with their brevity.

The prosecution case remained technically circumstantial in that no witnesses placed McVeigh at the wheel of his truck bomb in Oklahoma City, but in court seemed to prove stronger than expected. Prosecutors interwove survivors' appalling stories from the bomb- ing, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500, with dry details of truck rental agreements and bomb ingredients.

With jurors several times reduced to tears, they graphically used McVeigh's own words, in letters and computer files, to illustrate his all-consuming anger against the US government. This week, they returned to the anti- government clippings found in McVeigh's car when he was arrested only 75 minutes after the bombing. Witnesses had testified he planned the bombing to launch an uprising against the US government. Underneath a quote from the celebrated American patriot Samuel Adams, Mc Veigh had written: "May be now there will be liberty", he said.

"Is it a coincidence that the man with the bomb residue on his clothes had hate literature in his car?" Scott Mendelhoff for the prosecution asked. The last attorney to address the jury, he told them that the "fresh- faced young man" in the dock was a mass murderer.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's lead attorney, based the case for the defence on attacking the prosecution's star witness, McVeigh's army buddy Michael Fortier, who described casing the target with McVeigh five months before the blast, and provided inside details of his planning.

Mr Jones described Mr Fortier and his wife, Lori, as drug users who hoped to get rich and save themselves by framing McVeigh.

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