'I was a draftee, not a volunteer'
• Stephen Jones tells his experience as Timothy McVeigh's lawyer
March 31, 2023
He was at home alone that night when the half-expected and dreaded call came. Speaking on the campus of Northwestern Oklahoma State University March 24, attorney Stephen Jones of Enid recounted his reaction when Chief Justice David Russell of the Western District of Oklahoma, said, "If asked, would you represent an individual involved in the Oklahoma City bombing?"
About half of those in the audience were too young to have experienced the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Building and the aftermath, but older attendees know the emotional turmoil people experienced as they saw news reports of the devastation. There was sympathy for the victims and their families as first responders fought the flames and picked through the rubble looking for survivors.
And people were angry, looking with suspicion at anyone who might fit the nationality profile of a terrorist. That anger did not subside when arrests were made. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols might have looked like everyone's neighbors, but that didn't lessen the fury and the threats. Knowing the grief and anger surrounding this event, Jones knew accepting Chief Justice Russell's request would place him and his family at risk.
When his wife Sherrel arrived home on decision night, Jones discussed what his acceptance would mean to their family It was early in the morning when they began calling their children. The next day, Jones said he met with about 15 people in and around Enid to ask their opinions and reactions. He also called then-Governor Frank Keating since he served as special counsel to the governor. "I don't think you should do it," the governor told him. He said the federal government was not entitled to his lawyer.
Despite some dissenting opinions, Jones contacted Russell and accepted the challenge. He was immediately appointed to represent McVeigh. "I hope I haven't signed your death warrant," Russell told him.
To give his audience a quick history lesson, Jones played a ten-minute video from the BBC that covered events from the bombing through the trial including clips of an interview with Jones. In that interview, Jones said of McVeigh, "I knew at the time this was a complicated individual, very complicated." He added that McVeigh thought of himself as a patriot – not a martyr. Of his role as defense attorney, Jones said, "I was a draftee, not a volunteer."
Jones knew he would need help with McVeigh's defense, and he would not have time for other cases. He made arrangements with lawyers to take on his other clients. Meanwhile, the federal government arranged security for his home, his office and eventually for Denver where the trial was moved.
For McVeigh's defense, Jones first sought to get the Oklahoma judge recused, worked for a change of venue and managed to sever McVeigh's trial from that of Nichols. Jones said this was only the 18th federal case ever moved on a change of venue. To work on the case, Jones hired 17 lawyers, 10 to 12 staff members and seven investigators.
Due to inconsistencies in his statements, Jones did not believe his client acted alone, despite what he said. He traveled to numerous foreign countries investigating the case.
With half of his audience made up of mass communications students, Jones spoke about the impact of news media on the trial. "The 800-pound gorilla in the room was the media," he said. Talking to the media allowed them to explain their case. He said they hired their own photographer to provide better photos of McVeigh and released his military record.
Jones described some of the media as hostile but he said Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Dan Rather were very fair. The New York Times and the LA Times had balanced reporting. However, the Denver papers were caught up in the disappearance of Jon Benet Ramsey. The two papers decided to split the stories with the Denver Post covering Ramsey while the Rocky Mountain News covered the bombing trial. The judge eventually entered a gag order. Jones said, "We were pretty circumspect" but it didn't affect the prosecution at all.
At the end of his speech, Jones fielded some questions from the audience before students had to move on to their next class. One audience members asked what caused Jones to say yes to being appointed as McVeigh's attorney. "Generally lawyers are required to accept assignments from federal court. I had the experience," he said. "No one forced me to go to law school."
Later Jones signed copies of his book, "Others Unknown", which covers the bombing trial.
A video of Jones' speech may be viewed at http://www.AlvaReviewCourier.com.