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Victims’ Needs Pose Problems for Prosecution

July 6, 1996

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The hundreds of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing who want to be in court for the trial of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols are running up against a simple lack of space.

The Victim’s Rights and Restitution Act gives victims of federal crimes the right to attend a trial and obligates prosecutors to keep them abreast of legal developments.

Usually that’s little problem.

But 653 victims of the Oklahoma City blast want to watch at least a few days of the trial, said Dahlia Lehman, the victim-witness coordinator for the U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma City.

And about 50 want to be there to watch every moment.

``For people who are going, it’s how they are working through what happened,″ said Connie Schlittler, director of the Project Heartland Center, a federally funded counseling service for bombing victims and survivors.

``For some individuals that may be the best thing they could do.″

However, the Denver courtroom chosen for the trial by Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch seats only about 100.

Out of those seats, Matsch said, 42 are set aside for reporters, each defense team gets six, and only 12 are guaranteed for victims. The rest are open to anyone, on a first-come, first-served basis.

``You cannot get the amount of people that want to attend into the seats that are available,″ Ms. Lehman said.

The judge also imposed another restriction on the victims.

Matsch ordered that victims who would testify during a penalty phase are not to be admitted to the courtroom during the trial itself. If convicted of murder and conspiracy charges, McVeigh and Nichols could face the death penalty.

About 100 people have submitted victim statements, Ms. Lehman said, with more coming in every week. Prosecutors have not yet decided which or even how many they will use, said Leesa Brown, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

The judge said hearing trial testimony might alter their accounts of how the bombing affected their lives.

``Every time we come around, he slaps us in the face with something else,″ said Dan McKinney, whose wife, Linda, was killed in the blast. McKinney wants to watch parts of the trial and testify.

Although witnesses are routinely banned from watching trials until they testify, victim impact witnesses are exempted from that rule in state courts in both Colorado and Oklahoma.

``What we’re talking about here is a dogmatic application of a (federal) rule without thinking about the reason,″ said Richard Wintory, Oklahoma’s chief deputy attorney general and a veteran death penalty prosecutor.

Wintory noted that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has said the rule shouldn’t be applied automatically.

Special U.S. Attorney Joseph Hartzler will not say if he plans to formally ask Matsch to reconsider.

Marsha Kight has a proposal for opening up a few more seats. Kight, whose 23-year-old daughter died in the explosion on April, 19, 1995, wants to watch the whole trial.

``I’ll be asking that there be a pooling of press. And people such as Jones’ mother being in the courtroom need to be eliminated,″ Ms. Kight said, a jab at McVeigh attorney Stephen Jones, whose mother attended much of a hearing last month.

Prosecutors and many victims are counting on a proposal for a closed circuit telecast of the trial to Oklahoma City to ease the demand for courtroom seats.

Matsch is to hear oral arguments on that proposal on July 15. Defense lawyers oppose the telecast, and the traditional ban on cameras in federal courts weighs against it.

If closed-circuit is rejected, prosecutors might decide to give the victims daily briefings in Oklahoma City or Denver.

Many would find that unsatisfactory, said Karen Howick, an attorney who has battled for the telecast.

``You have eight hours of testimony and it gets distilled into two minutes on one of the news stations; that’s not enough for someone who lost a family member,″ Ms. Howick said.

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