Oklahoma City a Defining Moment in Merrick Garland's Career

The bombing, 21 years ago Tuesday, was a defining moment in the Supreme Court nominee's career

In Judge Merrick Garland's courthouse office in Washington, there's a framed photo of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the 1995 bombing that ripped away most of its front. There's also a courtroom artist's sketch from the prosecution of bomber Timothy McVeigh and a medal honoring Garland for his work on the case. 

The bombing, 21 years ago Tuesday, was a defining moment in the Supreme Court nominee's career. Garland has called it "the most important thing I have ever done in my life," President Barack Obama said in announcing his nomination, now stalled by congressional politics. 

At the time of the bombing, Garland was 42 and principal associate deputy attorney general, a top lieutenant to Attorney General Janet Reno. He was chosen to go to Oklahoma City, the highest-ranking Justice Department official there, and led the prosecution for a month until a permanent lead prosecutor was named. 

For two years after, through the preparation for McVeigh's trial, he was the team's man at the Department of Justice, the person who set the tone and was available for advice, said prosecutors involved in the case. 

Once it was decided he would go to Oklahoma, Garland had one evening to pack and say goodbye to his daughters, then ages 3 and 5. When the FBI plane taking him to Oklahoma City stopped to refuel, he learned that McVeigh was in custody, recalled J. Gilmore Childers, a former federal prosecutor who accompanied Garland. And when they got to Oklahoma they went directly to McVeigh's arraignment and then to the site of the still-smoldering Murrah building.

Garland has said he remembers passing through a ring of Humvees securing the scene and seeing broken glass and crumbled bricks even far from the site. It "really looked like a war zone," he said in a 2013 interview for the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. By the time Garland arrived, 65 bodies had been recovered, a death total that would ultimately grow to 168, including 19 children. 

"The worst part was being told where the kids had been," Garland said. 

A command center for the response was set up in a nearby telephone company building. There, Garland ran morning, afternoon and end-of-day briefings with up to two dozen people from various agencies involved in the case. He was involved in major investigative decisions, including whether and when to put McVeigh in lineups and who to have work with a sketch artist. At the time, officials were also pursuing a second suspect, "John Doe No. 2," who they worried might bomb again, a fear that was ultimately unfounded. 

Garland was "the face of the department out there at the time where people needed to believe that their government was capable of responding to this," said Aitan Goelman, a prosecutor on the case. 

Garland also spoke for the prosecution in court. At a hearing for McVeigh a week after the bombing, he walked an FBI agent through four hours of testimony, and a judge ordered McVeigh held in jail. Outside of the hearing, Garland asked reporters and the public for patience. 

"I know that there's a lot more that you all want to know, and a lot of things other people want to know. But I think most people also want to be sure this investigation goes forward effectively and efficiently, and the only way we're going to be able to do that is to not talk about the different leads that we're pursuing," he said. 

Garland wanted to lead the trial team prosecuting McVeigh, but he was needed back in Washington. Instead, he helped pick the team and set the tone for the prosecution, said Scott Mendeloff, another prosecutor on the case. It was critical to Garland that the case "be handled in such a way to reflect well on our justice system," Mendeloff said. He wanted prosecutors to be zealous but was also concerned about McVeigh's rights.

Stephen Jones, McVeigh's lead lawyer, said Garland was always professional and cordial. And though McVeigh was convicted and executed in 2001, Jones has supported Garland's nomination, urging President Barack Obama to nominate Garland in a letter just days after Justice Antonin Scalia's death. 

In announcing Garland's nomination, Obama cited Oklahoma City and in particular Garland's concern for the bombing's victims. Everywhere he went, he carried a program from a memorial service with each of their names, Obama said.

Patrick Ryan, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, said the case had a lasting impact on those who worked on it. 

"I know that I could name every single person on every single floor that died, and I bet Merrick could too," he said, adding: "I suspect that the emotions of Oklahoma City are still in his heart."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us