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Profile: Jeffrey Abramson
Jeffrey Abramson was a participant or observer in the following events:
According to reports by the Dallas Morning News, indicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and August 10, 1995) has confessed to planning the bombing and detonating a bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building. [Douglas O. Linder, 2001; Indianapolis Star, 2003] Reporter Pete Slover cites as his source “summaries of several 1995 interviews with a defense team member” [New York Times, 3/1/1997] , though he later admits in a court filing that he could not be sure the story was true before filing it. [Serrano, 1998, pp. 271] Researchers will later learn that McVeigh suspects his lead attorney Stephen Jones of leaking his purported confession to the press. The leak is later shown to be from a member of Jones’s staff, who gave a computer disk containing FBI reports to Slover, apparently unaware that the McVeigh “confession” was also on the disk. [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] However, this reported speculation is countered by an opinion advanced in 1998 by author Richard A. Serrano, who will write that the defense’s work to humanize McVeigh and “soften” his image (see June 26, 1995) “was blown apart” by the leaked information. [Serrano, 1998, pp. 271] The Morning News prints the article on its Web site seven hours before its next print edition can be published, and later cites a desire to match the immediacy of television and to ensure its exclusive isn’t “scooped” by a competitor. Editors worried before publication that McVeigh’s lawyers might leak the story in one fashion or another to another media outlet. [New York Times, 3/3/1997]
Details of Bombing Plot, Involvement by Co-Conspirator Nichols, Denials of Wider Conspiracy - According to documents obtained by the Morning News, McVeigh’s defense lawyers wrote that McVeigh told one of them that his bombing of the Murrah Federal Building during working hours would leave a “body count” that would make a statement to the federal government. McVeigh also named his friend, alleged co-conspirator Terry Nichols, as being intimately involved with the bomb plot (see August 10, 1995), but insisted he alone drove the Ryder truck containing the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building. McVeigh also denied any involvement by Terry Nichols’s brother James Nichols (see December 22 or 23, 1988, May 11, 1995, and April 25, 1995). The Morning News describes the source of its reporting as summaries of several 1995 interviews with a member of the defense team’s staff, conducted between July and December 1995 at the El Reno Federal Corrections Center in Oklahoma, where McVeigh was held before his transfer to the Denver area in March 1996. The summaries, the Morning News says, validate much of the prosecution’s contention that McVeigh and Nichols committed robberies and burglary in the course of assembling money and materials for the bombing, even as it acknowledges that they could not be used by prosecutors in either man’s trial. One summary of a July 1995 interview has a staffer asking McVeigh if it would have been better to bomb the building at night when relatively few people would have been present. According to the staffer: “Mr. McVeigh looked directly into my eyes and told me: ‘That would not have gotten the point across to the government. We needed a body count to make our point.’” According to the documents, McVeigh and Nichols used significantly more ammonium nitrate than federal investigators have estimated—some 5,400 pounds as compared to federal estimates of 4,800 pounds—and about $3,000 worth of high-powered racing fuel to make a lethal explosive combination. “Mr. McVeigh states that 108 50-pound bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer were mixed with the nitro fuel purchased by Terry Nichols,” one summary reads. The summaries also have McVeigh admitting to his involvement in a 1994 robbery carried out by Nichols and himself to fund the bombing plot (see November 5, 1994 and Before July 3, 1995). “Mr. McVeigh stated that he laid out the plan and that Terry Nichols alone broke into [gun dealer Roger] Moore’s house and stole the weapons,” one summary reads. The summary tallies closely with recent statements by McVeigh’s friend Michael Fortier, who pled guilty to helping transport the stolen weapons and is now helping the prosecution (see May 19, 1995 and August 8, 1995). Fortier has testified that he and McVeigh sold the weapons stolen from Moore in Arizona. McVeigh also detailed a burglary committed by himself and Nichols at a Kansas rock quarry (see October 3, 1994). He also gave information about a third burglary carried out by himself and Fortier of a National Guard armory (see February - July 1994), where they attempted to steal welding tools but only made off with hand tools. According to the summaries, McVeigh denied being part of a larger conspiracy, and said the bomb plot was conceived and executed by himself and Nichols. He called a witness who claimed knowledge of a Middle Eastern or Islamist connection (see February - July 1994) a “bullsh_t artist.” He also said that another conspiracy theory centered around right-wing activist Andreas Strassmeir is groundless (see January 23, 1993 - Early 1994 and April 20, 1995). [Dallas Morning News, 3/1/1997; Washington Post, 3/1/1997] Initially, McVeigh’s lead defense attorney Stephen Jones calls the documents “a hoax” and denies that McVeigh made any of those statements. The Dallas Morning News is trying to garner attention and subscriptions, Jones says, and implies that the Morning News’s source is “setting up” the paper: “They just bought the Brooklyn Bridge,” he says. The Morning News has informed Jones of the identity of the source that provided it with the documents. [Washington Post, 3/1/1997] “This is about the most irresponsible form of journalism,” Jones says. He says that after McVeigh learned of the story, his client said, “There’s a practical joker every week.” [New York Times, 3/1/1997]
Defense Alleges Press Stole Documents - The Morning News denies a subsequent defense allegation that Slover stole thousands of computerized documents belonging to McVeigh’s defense lawyers, documents Jones says were used in the Morning News’s reporting. Jones says the documents acknowledge McVeigh’s responsibility for the bombing, but do not constitute a confession. The Morning News, Jones says, got the documents “by fraud, deception, misrepresentation, and theft” involving the defense’s computer files. Attorney Paul Watler, speaking for the Morning News, “categorically denies it committed any crime,” and says the documents were obtained through “routine news-gathering techniques.” The Morning News “did not hack into Mr. Jones’ computer system, and it did not assist anyone else in doing so,” Watler says. Jones says the documents are not, as some reports say, notes of a defense staffer’s conversations with McVeigh; defense lawyers have previously alleged that they produced a “fake confession” designed to persuade a witness to talk to defense investigators. Jones says any such false confessions, if they exist, would not be used during McVeigh’s trial. Jones says he may ask Judge Richard Matsch to delay the trial for 90 days to allow for a “cooling-off period” and allow “people to move on.” Watler says Jones is using the allegations to cloud the trial proceedings. [Dallas Morning News, 3/4/1997; New York Times, 3/4/1997] Freelance journalist J.D. Cash, who writes for a far-right publication called The Jubilee and a small Oklahoma newspaper, the McCurtain Daily Gazette, denies reports that he is the source of the article. Cash says he is not “the intermediary who set up The Dallas Morning News,” but says he is familiar with the documents described in the newspaper’s accounts. The confession, Cash says, is “a mixture of fact and fantasy.”
Possible Negative Impact on Jury - Observers worry that the story may prejudice a potential jury. “It’s a worst-case scenario,” says legal studies professor Jeffrey Abramson. “At the witching hour, but before people have been isolated from pretrial publicity, you get explosive evidence, exactly the kind of thing that makes it very difficult for a defendant to think he hasn’t already been tried in the press.” Law professor Rita J. Simon says the article could make a fair trial very difficult. “The jurors will know there was some report about a confession,” she says. “I can’t imagine, no matter where you hold the trial, that the jurors will not hear about it. As soon as the trial gets under way, the story will come out afresh.” [New York Times, 3/2/1997]
Second Purported Confession - Days later, a second confession from McVeigh is reported, this time published by Playboy magazine. The article containing the purported confession is written by freelance reporter Ben Fenwick, and is apparently based on an internal summary of the case compiled by the McVeigh defense team (see Early 2005). Fenwick had obtained the document in 1996, he later says, and had kept it under wraps in the hopes of eventually writing a book about the case. He quickly wrote an article based on the document and sold it to Playboy after Slover’s article hit the press. According to Fenwick’s article, McVeigh says he detonated the bomb when he was a block away from the Murrah Building, and admitted to the bombing during a lie detector test administered by his lawyers. Other details in the article contradict physical evidence already presented in open court. Jones says: “These escalating reports of alleged statements by Mr. McVeigh are corrupting the heart of the jury system. The American ideals of justice are being held hostage to sensationalism.” Fenwick is soon hired by ABC News as a legal consultant, an arrangement that allows ABC to quote extensively from the article in a special broadcast aired shortly before the trial begins. Fenwick will later admit that he did not authenticate the document before using it. The document and the article will lead the FBI to discover McVeigh’s purchase of racing fuel from an Ennis, Texas, dealer (see October 21 or 22, 1994). [New York Times, 3/14/1997; New York Times, 3/18/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 271]
Entity Tags: Jeffrey Abramson, James Nichols, Terry Lynn Nichols, Andreas Strassmeir, Dallas Morning News, J.D. Cash, Ben Fenwick, Stephen Jones, Timothy James McVeigh, Rita J. Simon, Roger E. (“Bob”) Moore, Murrah Federal Building, Michael Joseph Fortier, Paul Watler, Playboy, Pete Slover, Richard P. Matsch, Richard A. Serrano
Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism
Jury selection begins in the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and August 10, 1995). Judge Richard Matsch has denied defense attempts to delay the trial after a brief controversy erupted over media reports using defense documents (see February 28 - March 4, 1997). “I have full confidence that a fair-minded jury can and will be impaneled and that those selected will return a just verdict based on the law and evidence presented to them,” Matsch wrote on March 17. Jurors’ identities are kept hidden from the press. One potential juror, asked by US Attorney Patrick Ryan, “Did you watch a lot of the coverage?” answers: “It was unavoidable. In Oklahoma, it was wall to wall and floor to ceiling.” Another potential juror says he worries about his safety in regards to what he will learn in the course of the trial: “It would seem this case goes further, wider, and deeper in many ways. A juror is going to be an insider on information he might just as soon not know.” [Washington Post, 3/18/1997; New York Times, 4/1/1997; Douglas O. Linder, 2001] The pressure of this being a death-penalty trial, and the prospect of potentially confusing forensic evidence countered by the raw emotions of the bombing itself and of the conspiracy theories surrounding the proceedings, raises oft-asked questions about the competence of 12 jurors to find the truth in such a complex situation. The difference between an open-minded juror and one who is ignorant or intellectually challenged is difficult for lawyers and observers to assess. New York Times reporter Laura Mansnerus reflects on the trial of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, charged with crimes relating to the Iran-Contra scandal (see July 7-10, 1987 and May-June, 1989), in which, she writes: “When the jury was selected for the 1989 trial of Oliver North, a search went out for 12 people who knew nothing about Oliver North, which produced, well, 12 people who knew nothing about Oliver North. One person who qualified for service said she had seen him on television, but added, ‘It was just like I was focusing on the Three Stooges or something.’” That ill-informed jury proved remarkably pliable to North’s theatrics, Mansnerus writes, and many believe McVeigh’s defense team hopes for a similar jury pool that may be willing to set aside scientific evidence in favor of conspiracy theories and emotional pleas. Jury expert Jeffrey Abramson of Brandeis University tells Mansnerus: “In a case that’s heavy on scientific, forensic evidence, the defense is going to favor people who are less sophisticated about scientific matters and who are prone to conspiracy theories. That’s the classic defense approach.” Philadelphia prosecutor Jack McMahon warned in a well-known 1986 instructional video of the pitfalls that can result in letting “smart people” on the jury, saying: “Smart people will analyze the hell out of your case. They have a higher standard. They take those words ‘reasonable doubt’ and they actually try to think about them. You don’t want those people.” Moreover, people with jobs requiring any real level of responsibility are routinely excused from jury service; this case is no exception, leaving a pool of jurors with little or no steady employment, spotty educational status, and somtimes limited intellectual capabilities to judge McVeigh’s innocence or guilt. [New York Times, 4/6/1997]
Prosecutors in Oklahoma City say they want a joint trial for convicted Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997) and Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997 and June 4, 1998) on 160 charges of first-degree murder. Oklahoma County District Attorney Robert Macy says he intends to bypass the customary grand jury and file charges against the two on his own for the 160 civilians who died in the blast (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). According to Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory, Macy wants a joint trial with two separate juries. Trying the two again is not a violation of the constitutional ban on double jeopardy, because they were convicted on federal charges that involved the deaths of eight federal agents (see August 10, 1995). They have not been tried for the deaths of the 160 civilians. Wintory says the use of a double jury would save a great deal of time because “there is such a large overlap of the evidence” against both men. When evidence that has been ruled inadmissible against one defendant is to be introduced against the other, Wintory says, the jury that may not hear that evidence will be asked to leave the room. Double juries have been used successfully in other trials, and would spare the survivors and victims’ families of the bombing the stress and trauma of two more trials, a point agreed to by Jeffrey Abramson, a professor of government at Harvard. He says “the idea of two consecutive trials on top of two consecutive trials is too much for the public, the defendants, and the families to bear.” The use of two juries is “a way of balancing defendants’ rights and victims’ rights in a speedy trial.” However, “[i]t changes the psychodynamics of what it means to be on a jury. Two juries sitting in the same room will eyeball the defendant they’re not being asked to try. Certainly, this is not in Terry Nichols’s best interest. If I were his defense lawyer, I would resist.” Having McVeigh and Nichols in the same courtroom “carries a certain suggestion they were in cahoots.” [New York Times, 1/9/1998]
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