Facebook Twitter

75% OF OKLAHOMA-BOMB RECORDS ARE SEALED

SHARE 75% OF OKLAHOMA-BOMB RECORDS ARE SEALED

If the case against Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were a book, three-fourths of the pages would be blacked out.

An Associated Press review of 1,000 documents filed in the case between Feb. 20 and Sept. 5 found that 75 percent of the records have been at least partially sealed.Consider this excerpt from a prosecution brief: "Evidence relating to -------- is typical of the government's proof; it implicates both defendants and will be offered against both either jointly or separately."

Or this from a brief filed by Nichols' counsel: "Therefore, unlike Mr. (Timothy) McVeigh, who will vigorously contest these facts, Mr. Nichols has little or no interest in countering the government's presentation on these issues - -------------------------------."

The sealed records have rekindled a debate over the public's right to know vs. a defendant's right to a fair trial. The news media recently lost a court bid to open some documents to the public, and many of the sealed documents will be discussed during an evidentiary hearing beginning Wednesday.

A civil liberties expert says trial judges like U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch must struggle to balance public interest and defendants' rights.

"There is a sensitivity in general that is going to sway Judge Matsch to do everything he can to ensure a fair trial right," said Allen Chen, a University of Denver law professor and former American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

Matsch has kept from the public most of the material he relied upon to suppress evidence in the case and order separate trials for McVeigh and Nichols.

The two men face murder, conspiracy and weapons charges in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil. The explosion killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.

Trial dates have not been set, but McVeigh's trial is scheduled first, and should begin early next year.

Throughout the pretrial proceedings, Matsch has given considerable weight to the defendants' concerns about receiving a fair trial.

He moved the trial to Denver after ruling an impartial jury could not be seated in Oklahoma. He later ordered separate trials to protect the defendants' constitutional rights.

For similar reasons, Matsch sealed defense-related expenses, saying it would give prosecutors an unfair advantage if they knew where defense attorneys traveled or which experts were hired.

Matsch also upheld an Aug. 23, 1995, order by U.S. District Judge Wayne Alley to seal evidentiary documents, called discovery, to curb pretrial publicity. Alley was removed from the case last year after concerns that bomb damage to his courtroom could raise doubts about his impartiality.

The media continue court challenges to the sealed records. In September, The Dallas Morning News asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to order Matsch to release statements Nichols made to the FBI during a nine-hour interview in Herington, Kan., two days after the bombing.