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Profile: Marsha Kight

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James Blassengill and his wife, Willie, who lost six family members in the bombing, comfort one another after the verdict.James Blassengill and his wife, Willie, who lost six family members in the bombing, comfort one another after the verdict. [Source: AP / Washington Post]The jury in the trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997) unanimously decides that McVeigh should be sentenced to death by lethal injection. The verdict is written in heavy black ink by jury foreman James Osgood, a single word: “Death.”
Statements by Prosecution and Defense - The prosecution puts an array of survivors and family members of the victims on the stand to tell their harrowing stories, and shows videotapes of some of the surviving children battling grave injuries in the months after the bombing. The defense counters with testimonials from some of McVeigh’s former Army friends (see March 24, 1988 - Late 1990 and January - March 1991 and After), and a presentation by McVeigh’s divorced parents, Bill McVeigh and Mildred Frazer; the father introduces a 15-minute videotape of McVeigh as a child and concludes simply, “I love Tim.” The defense emphasizes McVeigh’s far-right political views, insisting that his misguided belief that the government intended to impose tyranny on its citizens was fueled by the Ruby Ridge (see August 31, 1992 and August 21-31, 1992) and Branch Davidian (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After) incidents, and drove McVeigh to mount his own strike against a government facility. However, defense lawyer Richard Burr tells the jury, “He is just like any of us.” The defense brings in soldiers who served with McVeigh in the Army to testify about McVeigh’s exemplary service, but their statements are quickly neutralized when prosecutors remind them that they are all taught as their first rule of duty “never to kill noncombatants, including women and children.” Another damning moment comes when prosecutor Beth Wilkinson elicits testimony that shows McVeigh killed more people in the bombing than US forces lost during Desert Storm—168 to 137. Jones pleads for a life sentence without parole. At no time do defense lawyers say that McVeigh feels any remorse towards the lives he took.
Unanimous Verdict - The jury takes about 11 hours over two days to reach its verdict. The jury unanimously finds that at least seven “aggravating circumstances” were associated with McVeigh’s crimes, including his intention to kill, his premeditation and planning, that he created a grave risk to others with reckless disregard for their lives, that he committed offenses against federal law enforcement officials, and that he created severe losses for the victims’ families. They are split in consideration of “mitigating factors” proposed by the defense. Only two find McVeigh to be a “reliable and dependable person”; only four say he had “done good deeds and helped others” during his life; none see him as a “good and loyal friend”; and none agree with the proposition that he “believed deeply in the ideals upon which the United States was founded.” Lead prosecutor Joseph Hartzler says: “This is not a day of great joy for the prosecution team. We’re pleased that the system worked and justice prevailed. But the verdict doesn’t diminish the great sadness that occurred in Oklahoma City two years ago. Our only hope is that the verdict will go some way toward preventing such a terrible, drastic crime from ever occurring again.” Juror Tonya Stedman says that the jury wrestled with the idea of taking McVeigh’s life for his crimes: “It was difficult because we’re talking about a life. Yes, 168 died as a result of it, but this is another life to consider. This was a big decision. I feel confident in the decision we made.” Most relatives of the bombing victims echo the sentiments expressed by Charles Tomlin, who lost a son in the explosion: “I could see the strain on them [the jurors]. You know it was a hard decision to make to put a man to death, but I’m glad they did.” However, some agree with James Kreymborg, who lost his wife and daughter in the blast. Kreymborg says he “really did not want the death penalty” because “I’ve had enough death.” Mike Lenz, whose pregnant wife died in the blast, says: “It’s not going to bring back my wife and lessen my loss. My reason for believing or wanting to put McVeigh to death is it stops. It stops here. He can’t reach out and try to recruit anybody else to his cause.” Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter in the explosion, says she would have preferred a life sentence in prison: “There is a lot of pain in living—death is pretty easy.” Lead defense attorney Stephen Jones acknowledges respect for the jury’s decision, and adds: “We ask that the barriers and intolerance that have divided us may crumble and suspicions disappear and hatred cease. And our divisions and intolerance being healed, we may live together in justice and peace. God save the United States of America. God save this honorable court.” President Clinton had publicly called for the death sentence after the bombing (see April 23, 1995), but avoids directly commenting on the jury’s decision, citing the impending trial of fellow bombing suspect Terry Nichols (see November 3, 1997). Instead, Clinton says: “This investigation and trial have confirmed our country’s faith in its justice system. To the victims and their families, I know that your healing can be measured only one day at a time. The prayers and support of your fellow Americans will be with you every one of those days.” McVeigh faces 160 murder charges under Oklahoma state law. [New York Times, 6/4/1997; Denver Post, 6/14/1997; Washington Post, 6/14/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 297-300, 308, 313-315; Douglas O. Linder, 2001; Douglas O. Linder, 2006; Douglas O. Linder, 2006] McVeigh shows no emotion when the sentence is read. When he is escorted out of the courtroom, he flashes a peace sign to the jury, then turns to his parents and sister in the front row, and mouths, “It’s okay.” [Serrano, 1998, pp. 315]
McVeigh Will Be Incarcerated in Colorado 'Supermax' Facility - McVeigh will be held in the same “supermax” federal facility in Florence, Colorado, that houses Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” (see April 3, 1996), and convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (see February 26, 1993 and February 7, 1995). In a letter to the authors of McVeigh’s authorized biography, American Terrorist, Kaczynski will later say he “like[s]” McVeigh, describing him as “an adventurer by nature” who, at the same time, is “very intelligent” and expressed ideas that “seemed rational and sensible.” [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] A person who later speaks to McVeigh in prison will call him “the scariest man in the world” because he is so quiet and nondescript. “There’s nothing alarming about him—nothing,” the person will say. “He’s respectful of his elders, he’s polite. When he expresses political views, for most of what he says, Rush Limbaugh is scarier. That’s what’s incredibly frightening. If he is what he appears to be, there must be other people out there like him. You look at him and you think: This isn’t the end of something; this is the beginning of something.” [Nicole Nichols, 2003] McVeigh is one of only 13 people to be sentenced to death under federal law. It has been 34 years since any prisoner sentenced to death under federal law was executed. [New York Times, 6/4/1997] He will speak briefly and obscurely on his own behalf when Judge Richard Matsch formally sentences him to death (see August 14, 1997).

Entity Tags: Joseph H. Hartzler, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Tonya Stedman, James Kreymborg, Charles Tomlin, James Osgood, Beth Wilkinson, Timothy James McVeigh, William (“Bill”) McVeigh, Terry Lynn Nichols, Marsha Kight, Theodore J. (“Ted”) Kaczynski, Mildred (“Mickey”) Frazer, Mike Lenz, Richard P. Matsch, Stephen Jones, Richard Burr

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The mother of a woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995) issues an angry statement demanding that accused Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see November 3, 1997) testify in his own defense. Marsha Kight, the mother of 22-year-old Frankie Ann Merrell, who died in the bombing, is incensed at media reports that Nichols will probably not testify in his own defense. Lead defense lawyer Michael Tigar says that while no final decision as to Nichols’s testimony has yet been made, his client is under no obligation to take the stand. [New York Times, 12/5/1997]

Entity Tags: Frankie Ann Merrell, Michael E. Tigar, Terry Lynn Nichols, Marsha Kight

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Michael Fortier, a co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing (see March 24, 1988 - Late 1990, March 1993, May-September 1993, February - July 1994, October 21 or 22, 1994, and December 16, 1994 and After) who cooperated with authorities in testifying against bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (see May 19, 1995, August 8, 1995, April 29-30, 1997, May 12-13, 1997, and November 12-13, 1997), is sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the bomb plot, fined $200,000, and ordered to pay $4,300 in restitution. Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber’s decision seeks a middle ground between the relatives of bombing victims, who have demanded a harsh sentence for Fortier, and federal prosecutors, who recommend leniency for Fortier’s cooperation. Fortier’s lawyer Michael McGuire tells Van Bebber: “Michael Fortier did not believe Timothy McVeigh was going to carry out the bombing. For his negligence, he will always be the unforgiven man.” Fortier also receives credit for the 34 months he has already served in detention. In the sentencing hearing, Fortier apologizes to the victims for not turning in McVeigh and Nichols ahead of the bombing. “I deeply regret not taking the information I had to the police,” he says through tears. “I sometimes daydream that I did do this and became a hero, but [the] reality is that I am not.… I have paid close attention to the testimony given by the bombing survivors. The stories are so horrifying, so heartbreaking, and so full of human suffering that I cannot bear them. I am too weak to contemplate them for long. I feel as if my mind will break and I’ll cry and cry and never stop. Dear people, please, I offer my apology and I ask you to forgive me.… Please, please don’t let thoughts of me continue to hurt you.” Many survivors and victims’ relatives testify at the sentencing, telling of the grief and despair they and their families have suffered. Constance Favorite, who lost a daughter in the bombing, tells the judge: “All he needed to do was take responsibility and call. One phone call would have done it.” Marsha Kight, who also lost a daughter in the bombing, says Fortier’s sentence is too light. “Life in prison is what I would have considered enough,” she says. “I think he conspired. I think he helped buy components for the bomb. What do you call that?” Prosecutors call the sentence “appropriate” and say they are unmoved by Fortier’s declarations of remorse. “I think everyone in the courtroom had to think that it’s a little too late and a little too little,” says US Attorney Patrick M. Ryan. Van Bebber, chief judge of the US District Court for Kansas, was appointed to handle the sentencing because an appeals court ruled in 1995 that Oklahoma City federal judges had a potential conflict of interest in the case. The Oklahoma City federal courthouse sits across the street from where the Murrah building once stood, and itself was damaged by the bombing. [Washington Post, 5/28/1998; New York Times, 5/28/1998; Douglas O. Linder, 2001; The Oklahoman, 4/2009] Van Bebber rejected pleas for leniency from Fortier’s lawyers, who asked that Fortier be sentenced to serve the 33 months he has already been incarcerated—essentially setting him free immediately. He followed prosecutors’ recommendations that Fortier serve between 11 and 14 years, after saying that he was considering sentencing Fortier to over 17 years in prison. [New York Times, 5/13/1998] Fortier’s lawyers say they will appeal the sentence, and accuse prosecutors of misrepresenting the amount of jail time they would seek if Fortier cooperated with the investigation and testified in the McVeigh and Nichols trials. [Indianapolis Star, 2003] Fortier will win an appeal of his sentencing; the appellate court will find that Van Bebber used sentencing guidelines that were too strict. Fortier’s jail sentence will remain the same, but his fine will be reduced to $75,000. [The Oklahoman, 4/2009] He serves his sentence in the “supermax” federal facility in Florence, Colorado, that houses Theodore Kaczysnki, the “Unabomber” (see April 3, 1996), and convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (see February 26, 1993 and February 7, 1995). He will be released in January 2006, after serving 10 years and six months of his sentence. [Douglas O. Linder, 2001]

Entity Tags: Marsha Kight, G. Thomas Van Bebber, Michael Joseph Fortier, Michael McGuire, Constance Favorite, Theodore J. (“Ted”) Kaczynski, Timothy James McVeigh, Ramzi Yousef, Patrick M. Ryan, Terry Lynn Nichols

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Judge Richard P. Matsch sentences convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997) to life in prison without the possibility of parole after his jury cannot decide whether to sentence him to death (see January 7, 1998). He is also sentenced to eight concurrent six-year terms for the deaths of eight federal agents. Matsch orders Nichols to pay $14.5 million in restitution to the General Services Administration (GSA) for the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building. Nichols swears he has only $40,000 in assets; Matsch says that any future proceeds he might receive for selling his story would be given over to the government. Nichols’s defense team tried in vain to assert that Nichols was a “dupe” of fellow defendant Timothy McVeigh (see June 11-13, 1997) and should be given a lighter sentence. Nichols, who refused to provide information about the bombing plot, gave Matsch a written apology (see March 10, 1998). Matsch says Nichols committed an act of treason that demands the most severe punishment: “The only inference that can be drawn from the evidence is that the purpose of the plan was to change the course of government through fear and intimidation.… The evidence shows to my satisfaction that the intention was to disrupt, to disorganize, to intimidate the operations of these agencies and United States government. Apparently, the intention was that the response would be fear and terror and intimidation and that these people would not be able to perform their work and that the response throughout the nation would be hysteria.… But you know, it didn’t work out that way. There was no anarchy. There was no reign of terror.… What occurred was that a community became even more united, and I think perhaps the country as well. We proceeded with the orderly processes of recovery and of restoration.… What he did was participate with others in a conspiracy that would seek to destroy all of the things that the Constitution protects. My obligation as a judge is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Terry Nichols has proven to be an enemy of the Constitution, and accordingly the sentence I am going to impose will be for the duration of his life. Anyone, no matter who that person might be or what his background might be, who participates in a crime of this magnitude has forfeited the freedoms that this government is designed to protect.” Prosecutors say they are pleased with the sentence, while Nichols’s defense lawyers continue to assert that Nichols did not intend to kill anyone in the bombing. Nichols’s lead attorney, Michael Tigar, files papers calling for a new trial; Matsch says he will schedule a hearing. Marsha Kight, whose daughter Frankie Ann Merrell was killed in the bombing, says: “I’m proud of what happened in the judicial system. I felt like singing ‘God Bless America.’ He got what he deserved.” [Chicago Tribune, 6/5/1998; Washington Post, 6/5/1998; New York Times, 6/5/1998; Douglas O. Linder, 2001; Indianapolis Star, 2003; Fox News, 4/13/2005] Nichols will serve his term in the “supermax” federal facility in Florence, Colorado, that houses Theodore Kaczysnki, the “Unabomber” (see April 3, 1996), and convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (see February 26, 1993 and February 7, 1995). [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] Nichols refused an offer of leniency in return for his cooperation in further investigation of the bombing (see April 21, 1998).

Entity Tags: Frankie Ann Merrell, General Services Administration, Michael E. Tigar, Marsha Kight, Ramzi Yousef, Richard P. Matsch, Theodore J. (“Ted”) Kaczynski, Terry Lynn Nichols, Timothy James McVeigh

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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