Out Of The Horror In Oklahoma City, Merrick Garland Forged The Way Forward Twenty-one years ago, Garland — now nominated to the Supreme Court — supervised the investigation following the bombing that killed 168 people.
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Out Of The Horror In Oklahoma City, Merrick Garland Forged The Way Forward

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Out Of The Horror In Oklahoma City, Merrick Garland Forged The Way Forward

Out Of The Horror In Oklahoma City, Merrick Garland Forged The Way Forward

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On April 19, 1995, the nation was rocked by the largest domestic terrorism attack it had ever experienced. A bomb at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day care center on the ground floor.


Within days, Merrick Garland would arrive on the scene to supervise the investigation and the prosecution. Most Americans would not hear his name again until last month when President Obama nominated Garland, who is now a judge, to the U.S. Supreme Court. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: For Merrick Garland, this would be a defining moment as he made clear on the day he was nominated to the Supreme Court.


MERRICK GARLAND: We promised that we would find the perpetrators, that we would bring them to justice and that we would do it in a way that honored the Constitution.

TOTENBERG: To examine Garland's role, we went to Oklahoma City to talk to key players. And we got special access to Garland's oral history conducted in 2013 by the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum. Today we're much more used to the horror of terrorism. But on this day in 1995, the idea of such an evil deed was beyond most Americans' imaginations. Across the street from the federal building, it certainly never occurred to the folks at the water board, where a cassette machine was recording a mundane hearing at 9:02 in the morning.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Receive information regarding...


SIEGEL: An explosion apparently caused by a bomb blew off one side of the federal office building...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The enormous explosion at a federal building in Oklahoma City this morning was the work of terrorists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Rescue workers are having to crawl on their stomachs, crawling over corpses...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It is apparently the single deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Many of the casualties were children...

TOTENBERG: In Washington, Merrick Garland, the number two in the deputy attorney general's office, huddled with the top brass in the Justice Department. His boss was Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.

JAMIE GORELICK: You know, both of us had kids about the ages of the kids in the day care center. We were just sick to our stomachs. And Merrick said, I need to go.

TOTENBERG: Within just two days, the Justice Department had identified a suspect and was looking for him as Garland boarded an FBI plane headed for Oklahoma City. En route, Attorney General Janet Reno called.


GARLAND: She said, we found him. He's at a jail in Oklahoma, and you're going to be doing the initial hearing tonight.

TOTENBERG: On landing, Garland drove immediately to Tinker Air Force Base, a secure location where the suspect - Timothy McVeigh - was to be arraigned. Outside, an angry mob of reporters wanted to be let in. Inside, Garland was told you don't let press and public on a military base.


GARLAND: I said we don't want to do it that way. It's going to be bad enough there are going to be conspiracy theories. The law requires an open hearing.

TOTENBERG: It was the first of thousands of decisions Garland would make to ensure that the investigation and prosecution would be as flawless as humanly possible. After the arraignment that night, he went directly to the bomb site where the nine-story federal building was all but obliterated. And rescue workers were still searching for bodies.


GARLAND: And the site was lit up like sun, like the day, big lights everywhere and, you know, the extent of the catastrophe was immediately apparent, a gaping hole in the building and everything. And the worst part was being told that - where the kids had been.

TOTENBERG: Even years later, Garland fought back tears at the memory of the crushed day care center. Back then, though, the immediate problem was getting a grip on the investigations that splayed out across the country because McVeigh and his collaborators had moved across many states in executing their plot. There were competing local, state and federal agencies conducting separate probes. But the Justice Department was determined there would be one investigation only. The FBI would take the lead and Merrick Garland would supervise it all from Oklahoma City.

PATRICK RYAN: There's a lot of potential for territorialism, for people to say you're stepping on my toes. This is my city.

TOTENBERG: Patrick Ryan was the U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City.

RYAN: Merrick was able to navigate that. I don't think many people could've done that.

TOTENBERG: Garland was also worried about the victims' families and the survivors, according to Nolan Clay, who covered the bombing for The Daily Oklahoman.

NOLAN CLAY: I've covered many, many a court case where victims to prosecutors are a bother. They just don't want to deal with them. But the victims did have an important role in this. And he kind of set the tone early by let's make sure and let's keep the victims up to speed with what's going on.

TOTENBERG: Claudia Denny, who worked for the IRS in the building, had two children in the day care center who were horribly injured but miraculously survived.

CLAUDIA DENNY: I know early on we got invited to the U.S. attorney's office. They wanted all of our concerns, and I think Judge Garland set that up where we all got our voice heard.

TOTENBERG: What haunted Garland and others from the Justice Department was the specter of the O.J. Simpson trial the previous year and how botched police procedures led to an acquittal. It was a cautionary tale notes former Deputy Attorney General Gorelick.

GORELICK: People wanted to give us evidence that we couldn't lawfully take. And the investigators, of course, wanted to accept it because it was good evidence on which they could act. So Merrick was the person saying no. For every piece of evidence, we are going to have a subpoena, a search warrant. We are going to do this by the book.

TOTENBERG: Even Stephen Jones, the lead defense lawyer, says Garland did do it by the book. As Jones looked for issues on appeal, he was able to review all the government's applications for wiretaps that were submitted long before the trial.

STEPHEN JONES: I read all those applications and they were pretty tightly drawn. In hindsight, that was the correct thing to do.

TOTENBERG: From the get-go, Garland recalls looking down the road at the eventual trial and the appeals that would follow.


GARLAND: I mean, my own experience had been, several years after, even very bad crimes looks different. And so you want to be sure that every I was dotted and every T was crossed.

TOTENBERG: The Oklahoma City bombing also came two years after the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, a disaster for the government where 76 people died. Again, Jamie Gorelick.

GORELICK: Imagine if we had gone into Oklahoma City in a way that made us look like jack-booted thugs. That's what people thought of us after Waco. We would've had a vastly different result not just in the case but in the country.

TOTENBERG: Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma at the time and a Republican, also points to the contrast between the handling of the bombing case and the O.J. Simpson and Waco cases. He notes that Timothy McVeigh was tried, convicted and executed in a remarkably short time, and he gives the credit to Garland.

FRANK KEATING: It would not have happened but for his leadership. And to look at something as Garland and his team did with an icicle focus was a superb act. People don't understand when they're eating a good dinner on a Friday night there's a chef in the kitchen that did it. And in the case of what we saw after April 19, there was a chef in the kitchen that did it and it was Merrick Garland. It was a very successful prosecution.

TOTENBERG: In his Oklahoma City oral history, Garland said he learned an important lesson about the new world of terrorism that the U.S. was then entering.


GARLAND: We made it up as we were going along, and it was clear when that was over that we couldn't do that again. We had to have a system.

TOTENBERG: When he got back to Washington, D.C., the Justice Department began in earnest to develop that system. It's a system that's been perfected and used since for everything from mass shootings to 9/11. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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