DENVER -- There were remembrances of dead children yesterday and tributes to grieving families. And then the lawyers at the Oklahoma City bombing trial turned from the victims to Timothy J. McVeigh, the man accused of blasting apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people.

Joseph Hartzler, the lead prosecutor, described McVeigh as a misguided Army veteran, obsessed with the date April 19, who confused his rage against the government with patriotism.

"He envisioned that by bombing the building in Oklahoma City, he would bring what he called liberty to the United States of America," Hartzler said in his opening statement in federal court here.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's chief lawyer, did not run from the horror in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. In fact, he stood and intoned the names of 168 victims, a recitation that took seven minutes. But he said he will show that the government's case is fatally flawed, a mix of misidentifications, botched laboratory work and witnesses with suspect motives.

And McVeigh's strong views against the government, Jones said, do not make him a killer.

McVeigh, in a blue-and-white plaid shirt and khaki slacks, was attentive to both lawyers' presentations. Sometimes his brow furrowed as he listened to each side outline their cases for the newly impaneled jury.

The courtroom was crowded. Overnight, a spring storm had moved in, blowing snow across Denver. But survivors of the bombing and victims'relatives began lining up in the cold before 7 a.m., waiting for more than an hour for the limited seats and a chance to hear the lawyers' first remarks to the jury.

"I'm here because my daughter can't be," said Marsha Kight, whose daughter, Frankie Merrell died in the bombing.

Security in the federal courthouse remained tight. Spectators had to pass through two metal detectors and carry official passes to get into the courtroom of Judge Richard P. Matsch.

Prosecutors will begin calling witnesses today. The first evidence is expected to include an audiotape of the bombing and five-minute videotape of the chaos and the frantic aftermath.

As he opened the government's case yesterday, Hartzler, who has multiple sclerosis and spoke from a wheelchair, promised the jurors so much proof of the defendant's guilt that "we will make your job easy."

Before he got to the evidence, he started with one family's story.

Tevin Garrett was 16 months old on April 19, 1995, Hartzler said. His mother remembers how mischievous he was that morning, tugging on the cord of her curling iron as she tried to dress for work.

She remembers all that clearly, Hartzler said, "because that was the last morning of his life."

Hartzler spoke of Tevin clinging to his mother as she tried to leave the day care center and how other youngsters came to him to comfort him. Every child the prosecutor named died in the blast.

"None of the parents of those children I just mentioned ever touched their children again while they were still alive."

"The only reason they died is that they were in a building owned by a government that Timothy McVeigh hated."

Hartzler then began to outline what jurors can expect to hear during the next few weeks.

"You will hear evidence in this case that Timothy McVeigh considered himself a patriot, someone who was capable of starting the second American revolution," Hartzler said.

McVeigh's suspicion of the government grew to rage after the fiery end to the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, Hartzler said. The defendant set out to educate himself about explosives and bombs. He told his friends "it was time to take action," Hartzler said.

When McVeigh created a phony driver's license so that he could rent the Ryder truck that carried the bomb, Hartzler said, he gave himself a new birth date: April 19.

April 19, the prosecutor noted, also was the date in 1775 that the first shots were fired in the American Revolution. But those Americans, he said, fought hand to hand and didn't attack children. "They didn't plant bombs and run away, wearing earplugs."

When McVeigh was arrested 75 minutes after the bombing, Hartzler said, he was wearing a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln and the Latin slogan, "Sic semper tyrannis," (Thus always to tyrants), the phrase John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting the president.

His car, Hartzler said, contained writings, some in his own hand and some published works, that raged against federal authority. "These documents are virtually a manifesto declaring McVeigh's intentions," Hartzler said.

He said McVeigh's planning had gone on for months. In his sister Jennifer's computer, the lawyer alleged, McVeigh created a file titled, "ATF Read," as if he wanted to flag it should agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ever come looking. ATF agents were involved in the Waco siege.

Included in the file, Hartzler said, censoring the statements, were such taunts as, "All you tyrannical m-f-ers will swing in the wind " And, "Die, you spineless, cowardice bastards."

Hartzler said McVeigh became a devoted reader of "The Turner Diaries," a novel that describes a racist group's bombing of federal offices in Washington. The lawyer called the text "a blueprint" for bombing a federal facility.

Hartzler then sketched out the evidence the government has to prove the plot:

McVeigh, Hartzler said, recruited his Army buddy Terry L. Nichols to join the conspiracy. The two men bought 2 tons of ammonium nitrate in the fall of 1994, using phony names. He said they shopped for barrels to hold the fertilizer and called auto raceways to find racing fuel to mix with it.

The two broke into a quarry to steal blasting caps, Hartzler said. And using fake names, he added, they rented storage lockers to keep the bomb ingredients.

Hartzler also promised that Michael Fortier, another Army friend, will testify that McVeigh drove him to Oklahoma City to show him the federal building and the alley in which he would park his getaway car.

In Fortier's Arizona home, Hartzler said, McVeigh drew a diagram of how he would position the barrels of fertilizer and fuel in the back of a truck. Later, he used soup cans to show Fortier's wife, Lori, how the barrels would be placed.

Michael Fortier, Hartzler acknowledged, has pleaded guilty to transporting weapons across state lines and is in prison awaiting sentencing. Lori Fortier has been promised immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony.

When the defense's turn came, Jones attacked the government's investigation. And he began casting suspicion on any testimony that the jury might hear from the Fortiers. Without them, Jones said, the government cannot prove its case.

Both Fortiers used amphetamines and marijuana, Jones said. Both had read newspaper accounts and watched television reports of the arrest of Nichols, who, like Michael Fortier, was an Army pal who shared McVeigh's anti-government views.

Jones said the Fortiers, fearful that they too would be charged in a crime that could mean the death penalty, called the government and made a deal. He said the defense's evidence will show that the Fortiers "could only be expected to say whatever they wanted the government to hear and save their own skins at the expense of the truth."

Point by point, Jones tried to poke holes in the government's case. He noted that witnesses at the Kansas body shop where McVeigh allegedly rented a truck gave conflicting descriptions. He said that there are questions about who rented the storage lockers that were said to have held explosives and who had access to them. He challenged the phone records that the government said tie McVeigh to the bombing.

Jones repeatedly conceded that McVeigh hated the government. He carried anti-government literature with him, stacked it up at his house and distributed it at gun shows, Jones said.

"Tim McVeigh believed the federal government executed 76 people at Waco," he said. "He believed these actions pointed to a federal government out of control."

But rage, the lawyer said again and again, does not equal motive.

And he said that "The Turner Diaries" "is no more a blueprint for how to blow up a federal building than Frederick Forsythe's novel 'The Day of the Jackal' is a blueprint for how to assassinate the president of France."

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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