McVeigh trial shows that system can work

Many Americans have grown suspicious of the criminal justice system in the past few years. They have watched high-profile cases like the O.J. Simpson murder trial turn into media circuses, where all involved make millions of dollars from book contracts while justice seemingly isn’t served. The Timothy McVeigh trial, which concluded this week with a guilty-on-all-counts verdict, however, has provided a welcome contrast by showing the American legal system at its best.
Verdict aside, the trial was speedy, efficient and most importantly, fair. Even legal experts were surprised by how well it was handled. From the beginning, it had the potential to be another case dominated by sensationalism, far-out conspiracy theories and larger-than-life personalities. But thanks to a tough, disciplined judge and excellent prosecution and defense teams, it did not become another trial of the century. Instead, despite almost 200 witnesses and a huge volume of physical evidence that needed to be explained, the trial took just 22 days and the jury reached a verdict after less than 24 hours of deliberation.
The most crucial factor in the McVeigh trial was Judge Richard Matsch. Matsch ruled the courtroom firmly and fairly. Judges can exclude evidence if they believe it is irrelevant, insubstantial or prejudicial. Matsch used this power three times during the trial to keep the defense on track. He refused to let Stephen Jones, the chief defense lawyer, put the FBI on trial. Although the bureau’s forensics lab was investigated and criticized by the Department of Justice for mishandling evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing case and other investigations, Matsch let the jury hear only relevant information. He also forbade Jones from trying to bring up a worldwide conspiracy theory to explain the bombing.
At the same time, the judge was very fair to the defense team within the confines of evidence applicable to the case. He strongly stressed to the jury that the prosecution’s main witnesses — McVeigh’s former friends Lori and Michael Fortier — were highly questionable characters who had cut a deal with prosecutors to testify against McVeigh. The prosecution can also be commended in this case. They took a difficult mix of circumstantial physical evidence, testimony about McVeigh’s involvement in purchasing explosives ingredients, and bombing victims to create a compelling case. Despite no eyewitnesses who could place McVeigh at the crime scene, prosecutors wove together a cohesive story that ultimately led to McVeigh’s conviction.
The defense also did its utmost to prove McVeigh innocent. Although it was hampered by an inability to provide McVeigh any alibi, Jones and his associates did their best to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, fighting for their client until the end. The Oklahoma City bombing trials aren’t finished. McVeigh’s case now moves to the sentencing portion, and Terry Nichols will soon be tried for his part in the worst act of terrorism on American soil. But for now, Americans can celebrate that the system can work the way it was intended to and that justice can be served.