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Editorial: Allowing potential penalty witnesses into courtroom sets risky precedent

March 26, 1997


Timothy McVeigh's trial

Allowing potential penalty witnesses into courtroom sets risky precedent

The issue:

Allowing potential witnesses to view the trial

Our view:

Victims or their relatives should not be allowed to attend the trial if they plan to testify later

Thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the country had reason to celebrate on Tuesday, but justice may have taken a small step backward.

President Clinton signed a bill allowing survivors and relatives of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing who plan to testify in a possible sentencing phase of the Timothy McVeigh trial to watch the proceedings which begin next week in Denver.

Now, this may sound all nice and good, but is this exactly fair to McVeigh? To the great majority of the country, McVeigh is guilty as sin for the bombing which took place in April 1995.

However, under the laws of our judicial system, he is still entitled to a fair and impartial trial, and then afterwards an unbiased sentencing phase, if one should come about.

The prosecution has already earmarked a dozen or two people to testify in the sentencing phase of the trial if McVeigh is convicted. Until Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch had held firm, banning these people from being in the courtroom during the regular part of the trial.

The gruesome details and graphic images sure to be brought up in the trial, he argued, would negatively affect how they think about McVeigh and could possibly taint their testimony.

Congress and the President feel the survivors and relatives of victims have a right to sit in on the trial, and they do, but not if they also plan to testify as victim witnesses in a penalty phase.

Matsch claimed he could still protect Timothy McVeigh's rights by letting victim witnesses testify apart from the jury so that their emotions do not play too much of a significant role.

Even if Judge Matsch does do that, what these individuals hear and see during the trial will lodge inside their minds and likely will come out in a sentencing phase. These people are, after all, only human, and what they endured almost two years ago has surely left some emotional scars.

But, the fact remains. Under the eyes of the law, Timothy McVeigh is still innocent until proven guilty, and even if he is eventually found guilty, he will still deserve to have an unbiased jury for the sentencing phase.

If this trend continues, mothers of slain children will be able to testify against their child's murderer, and what jury member will be able to control his or her heart strings and not sentnece him to death when the mother starts crying about her baby.

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