OJ-style trial for Oklahoma bomb suspect

"There is no panic here," said Stephen Jones, leaning back on the other side of a vast leather-topped desk. "There's an ebb and flow. You take the Chinese view of history. This week, the press is bad for us, next week it could be good. We take our hits, they take their hits." The desk, like its master, is an import from the small wheat and cattle town of Enid, Oklahoma, where for 30 years Mr Jones practised law.

The fiftysomething, bespectacled, self-avowed Anglophile claims his inspiration from great British lawyers such as Lord Erskine. From his new headquarters in central Denver, the veteran defence attorney heads a team of 14 lawyers acting for Timothy McVeigh, who goes on trial next month for killing 168 people in the worst act of terrorism in US history. "I've been appointed by the court to defend somebody," promises Mr Jones, "and I am going to use every ethical means to do it."

Mr McVeigh's defence in the Oklahoma City bombing trial has had its share of small victories. Early on, Mr Jones asked for and got a change of venue to Denver, and then won separate trials for his client and the other accused, Terry Nichols. Recent newspaper accounts of mishandled evidence at the FBI's central crime laboratory promised fertile ground to attack forensic evidence, OJ-style. But the team encountered its biggest crisis this week. With the jury selection process just getting under way in Denver, a Dallas newspaper printed excerpts from a defence memorandum, alleging that Mr McVeigh had made a detailed confession.

Mr Jones' defence was to attack, calling the story "an irresponsible hoax". Then he accused the Dallas Morning News reporter of electronic theft of defence files. Finally, he said the "confession" document had actually been concocted by defence investigators to persuade a hostile witness to talk, in what he called a "Mutt and Jeff" routine targeted at a notorious figure on the American far right. "We're not investigating a white collar crime with country-club types," he said, insisting that the Supreme Court had sanctioned such tactics.

The only corroboration for this bizarre tale came from a reporter for a rural Oklahoma newspaper. JD Cash, who has also written for far-right publications, said an investigator on the McVeigh team showed him the faked confession a year ago. But while the Texas paper stuck to its story, Mr Jones had thrown up enough dust to make potential jurors think again.

There are six legs of the government case against the former soldier and Gulf war veteran, Mr Jones said. Two are Mr McVeigh's arrest on the road from Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, hours after the bombing, and his known right-wing views.

"I can't change the facts. Tim thinks what he thinks, and he was arrested where he was arrested," said Mr Jones. But of the rest, he said: "I challenge from A to Z and those four legs have gotten termites in them."

The defence will undoubtedly accuse Michael Fortier, who allegedly plotted with Mr McVeigh and is the government's star witness, of changing his story to win himself a reduced sentence and immunity for his wife.

It has already dredged up criminal records and inconsistencies in eyewitnesses who claimed to see Mr McVeigh on the road to Oklahoma City. The defence could also be helped by reports that a government informant was inside Elohim City, the right-wing Christian compound in Oklahoma to which Mr McVeigh made two telephone calls that April. The woman, according to government sources, claimed two other men - one a German nation- al with neo-Nazi links - had talked of bombing federal buildings.

Mr Jones is guarding his hand. He will not have to release his witness list until well into the expected six-month trial. But his chief tactic is not to point the finger at others, but to sow reasonable doubt - just as he was doing this week.

"The Dallas Morning News can go to hell," he said. "I am not going to win the battle with the press. If I win the battle of the courtroom, who cares about this? If I lose the battle of the courtroom, it's going to be because the jury said the evidence was convincing."