Oklahoma Bombing Trial Reporters: Merrick Garland-Led Case “Reinstilled Faith” In American Courts

Reporters who covered the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh praised Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland's work as a Justice Department official on the case, with one saying the successful prosecution “reinstilled faith in the American criminal justice system.”

Garland, currently chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was serving as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice when the case went to trial in 1997. McVeigh was eventually convicted for his part in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that left 168 people dead.

Those who covered the case said Garland, who oversaw the choice of the prosecution team and organized much of the evidence and gathering of witnesses, showed professionalism and a keen legal understanding that helped the prosecution win convincingly. 

“I was impressed,” Nolan Clay, a veteran Oklahoman journalist who was the hometown paper's lead reporter on the trial, told Media Matters. “He came down here and he was involved in the very first hearings and he chose the prosecution team and he chose a bunch of spectacular people.”

Clay added that Garland “had the O.J. Simpson trial in mind and he didn't want people who would make names for themselves. He let them do the case and did not micro-manage them. He insisted that search warrants be done properly. He did it very much by the book.”

Clay recalled the initial appearance before the court by McVeigh on April 21, 1995, two days after the bombing.

“Garland was there and made sure reporters and some members of the public could come in and see it,” Clay recalled. “It was a public airing and he wanted it done by the book. I was impressed by that.” 

Here's video of Garland speaking at that April 1995 appearance, from the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum via The Oklahoman

Asked about Garland's fitness for the Supreme Court based on his experience, Clay said, “He clearly shows he is a people person. Consensus building is usually what it takes and I think he'd be good at that.”

“He was sort of behind the scenes. Super-intelligent and the prosecution was pretty successful,” said Paul Queary, who covered the trial for the Associated Press. “The prosecutor always seemed highly-organized and they were particularly attuned to the sensitivities of the victims' survivors and the families of the people who were killed.”

The case took on an added workload because it was moved to Denver to avoid the possibility of a biased jury and because the courthouse in Oklahoma City had been damaged by the bombing itself, which occurred next door.

Queary added, “The lead prosecutors were from outside Oklahoma and I assume were picked by [Garland]. I thought that their general level of decorum and professionalism in that case was really high. There was a fair amount of grandstanding from the defense on that case, charismatic Oklahoma and Texas defender types. There were a lot of concerns at the time that the bombing was so close to the legal community in Oklahoma, it was right next to the federal courthouse, he chose an elite team from out of town for that purpose.”

Queary said of Garland's Supreme Court nomination: “I'm not aware of any reason to object to him. If that is a reflection of his competence then it is a fine reflection.”

Richard A. Serrano, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the trial, also wrote a 1998 book about the case. He said Garland's work was a key element in the successful prosecution.

“He was head of the criminal division so he oversaw the prosecution, he assembled the team and helped coordinate evidence and subpoenas and search warrants, he also had the Unabomber at the same time,” Serrano said. “It was very streamlined, very dramatic and he brought a lot of victims to testify. They obviously did a good job. Very methodical and very well put together.”

He also said that the prosecution brought the case to trial within two years, which is very unusual: “Some trials take forever to bring to trial. When you think about the military commissions that go on forever, it says a lot.” 

Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Chicago Tribune reporter who covered the case, described it via email as a “well done prosecution. Tightly focused. Carefully presented. Powerful.”

“Clearly, it was a great prosecution team given they had a brutal case to prosecute and this was occurring at a time when we had recently come out of the whole O.J. Simpson case and we had an amazing federal judge and a spit-a-polish prosecution team that did not have an easy case,” said Peter Annin, a former Newsweek correspondent who reported on the trial.

He added that Garland “was closely following the case and was checking in daily and doing a lot of interviews with reporters on background, he was following the case closely enough to do that.”

Annin said it “reinstilled faith in the American criminal justice system in the wake of the circus of the O.J. Simpson trial.”