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Questions probe inner psyche of potential bombing jurors

April 6, 1997

DENVER (AP) _ What kind of bumper stickers do you have on your car? Read any good books lately? Ever had a disagreement with police?

Depending on your answers, you might be a good candidate for the Oklahoma City bombing jury.

Nearly three dozen prospective jurors were asked those questions last week by U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch and lawyers trying to seat a panel to hear the case against Timothy McVeigh.

The prospects already have filled out two lengthy questionnaires, detailing their knowledge of the case, potential hardships and views on the death penalty.

The surveys pared the jury pool from nearly 1,000 to 350.

From the remaining group, both sides hope to find 18 people who can set aside their biases, ignore peer pressure and vote their consciences after seeing the evidence against McVeigh, accused of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

The judge has withheld the questionnaires to help guard the candidates’ identities, but details emerged during jury questioning last week as the candidates read their answers in open court.

It’s not a test, say Matsch, prosecutors and attorneys for McVeigh.

``There are no wrong answers,″ prosecutor Patrick Ryan told one prospective juror. ``Actually, the only wrong answer is an answer that’s untruthful.″

``You can tell a lot what a person thinks by the bumper sticker on their car,″ said Denver lawyer Andrew Cohen, who is following the case. ``It’s a very quick way to find out about a person’s political and social beliefs.″

Cohen said one man, a researcher for the Environmental Protection Agency, disclosed a lot about himself when he reported that he had a bumper sticker reading ``Mean people suck.″

``It’s a social statement, not a political statement. It’s the same as bumper stickers that read `Random acts of kindness,‴ Cohen said.

But Cohen said some soul-bearing statements can be misinterpreted, which is why the judge and lawyers are quizzing the jurors about their answers.

Cohen said prosecutors might like the bumper sticker because it can be read as opposing criminals, while defense attorneys might interpret it as someone who favors the underdog.

McVeigh faces murder, conspiracy and weapons-related charges in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995. The explosion killed 168 and injured more than 500. No trial date has been set for co-defendant Terry Nichols.

The jury candidates have revealed a lot about themselves during the questioning.

A businessman disclosed that he frequently used the Internet, had tax trouble, had a mentally retarded sister, played golf and loved Stephen King’s books.

McVeigh attorney Cheryl Ramsey asked if the man’s fondness for King’s thrillers was a reflection of his character.

Matsch interjected, referring to King: ``He’s a good storyteller.″

``Sometimes too good,″ the man replied.

A former security officer was asked about a movie he had seen recently, ``Dead Man Walking,″ about a death-row inmate.

``We discussed the theme and decided that was an individual we hoped had found an inner peace. He was taking final responsibility for his actions,″ the man said.

Asked what he thought about the execution in the movie, he replied: ``It was justified.″

Other questions have delved into candidates’ medications, fights they’ve had with police and the justice system, military service, political affiliation, and even personal questions about friends, relatives and neighbors.

Two juror prospects broke down in tears, one while trying to explain her answers about two previous nervous breakdowns, and another when he was asked to explain why he was bitter at the justice system after two losing two personal court battles.

Another lawyer not involved in the trial, Scott Robinson, said he doesn’t believe in jury questionnaires.

``I tell jurors I don’t have the foggiest notion of what they’re thinking,″ he said. ``I tell them I just want to find out who is biased against my client.

``The idea of using jury questionnaires to find that out is hocus pocus, voodoo, and witchcraft. Not only is this not a science, it’s not even an art.″

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