Chapter IV
The Criminal Pretrial and Trial Phases

A Summary of Victims' Needs During the Pretrial and Trial Phases

The criminal pretrial and trial phases presented significant challenges to safeguarding crime victims' rights especially with the change of venue decision in February 1996. As Oklahoma City and Denver responded to the bombing victims, the following victims' needs were clear:

  • Ability to observe trial proceedings.

  • Accommodations for travel and housing.

  • Accommodations for CCTV broadcasts.

  • Legal explanation of trial events.

  • Emotional support for trial decisions, evidence, and testimony.

  • A notification process that informs victims of the ongoing criminal justice process.

  • A process for determining which victims can attend the trial each day.

  • A waiting area separate from defendants and their families.

  • Seating in the court separate from defendants' families.

  • A process to identify and coordinate resources and volunteers to assist victims traveling to the trial.

  • An intermediary who coordinates media interviews with victims and families and debriefs the victims and families after the interview to reduce the possibility of retraumatization.

Challenges to Victims' Rights and Services as a Result of Change of Venue

The focus of victim services shifted to trial-related activities when the change of venue hearing was held in January 1996. Long before the judicial decision to change the venue in the cases of United States v. Timothy McVeigh and United States v. Terry Nichols, however, speculation over a possible new venue aggravated victim tensions and apprehension regarding the upcoming trials. The pretrial and trial phases raised concerns about ensuring victims' observation and/or participation at the trials, informing victims of the criminal justice process, and continuing to provide mental health services.

A new set of challenges emerged as a result of moving the trials of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh to Denver. Attorney General Janet Reno announced to the victims Judge Matsch's decision that the criminal trials of defendants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would not take place in Oklahoma but in Denver, Colorado. Attorney General Reno pledged, however, that the U.S. Department of Justice would work to support the victims.

Quote from Attorney General Janet RenoApart from the basic statutory requirement to keep victims informed throughout the criminal justice process, the change of venue required special accommodations to help victims access the proceedings and receive support in the new trial location. One of the primary concerns of victims was the difficulty the distance to Denver posed for watching the trials. The victims initiated two pieces of legislation that were passed by Congress to secure victims' rights to participate in judicial proceedings:

  • A new federal statute established that, where a Federal Court changes the trial venue out of the state in which the case was initially brought by more than 350 miles from the location in which the proceedings originally would have taken place, the court must order closed-circuit televising of the proceedings to be broadcast at the original location to permit victims who qualify under the statute to watch the trial proceedings [42 U.S.C. 10608].

  • Congress passed legislation prohibiting the U.S. district judge from ordering victims excluded from the trials of the defendants because the victim may testify or make a statement during the sentencing about the effect of the offense on the victim and the victim's family [18 U.S.C. 3593].

Travel Assistance to Denver

Plans to facilitate victim attendance at the trials in Denver began at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma. The Office was committed to enabling as many victims and support persons as possible to travel to Denver without personal financial sacrifice, recognizing that the venue change imposed by the court demanded long-distance travel and added to the disruption of victims' lives. Without such support, many would have been denied the opportunity to attend the trial, and others would have been forced to incur costs on top of grievous losses.

Soon after the venue change announcement, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating asked the United Way of Metro Oklahoma City to administer a fund to help victims travel to the Denver trials. In a coordinated effort on February 27, 1996, Attorney General Janet Reno augmented Governor Keating's announcement by announcing an OVC grant for $200,000 to the U.S. Attorney's Office for victims' travel expenses related to attendance or observation of the trials. To help coordinate travel and other activities, OVC provided funding for two temporary staff members for the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit and funded additional victim-witness personnel in the Colorado District U.S. Attorney's Office.

Denver-Based Support Services

The change of venue to Denver unleashed a storm of activity in that city among public and private groups wishing to be of assistance to the victims. Social service, mental health and public safety agencies, churches, businesses, victim advocates, and private citizens offered a wealth of personal goods and services to the Oklahomans. Some 600 people volunteered rooms in their homes for relatives and survivors of the bombing.13

Fueled by local media, which clamored for a major demonstration of civic hospitality, victims' groups in Denver and the U.S. Attorney for Colorado concluded that a single, local coalition was necessary to coordinate services and donations. Simultaneously, the U.S. Attorneys' Offices in Oklahoma City and Denver and the U.S. Department of Justice recognized the need for a single coalition given the fervor of media requests, the outpouring of contributions, and the risk for another venue change if the response was not organized. On March 14, 1996, the Colorado Oklahoma Resource Council (CORC) was born. CORC brought together 18 agencies including representatives of the city of Denver, federal agencies, relief organizations, and victim advocacy groups.14 Among other victim assistance functions, CORC ensured that a Safe Haven was provided for victims in Denver.

Although businesses, churches, and other private groups donated generously to CORC, ongoing support was necessary to meet the needs of bombing victims attending the trials. To provide support for victims' services during the trials, OVC approved a grant under an amendment to the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) contained in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 [42 U.S.C. 10603b]. Under the grant agreement, OVC extended federal antiterrorism funding to the Denver Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement (VALE) Board because of VALE's commitment to the victim assistance effort already under way and its capacity to oversee CORC activities.

OVC coordinated meetings in Denver and Oklahoma City that included EOUSA, the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit, VALE, and CORC. OVC identified responsibilities for CORC that reflect concern about providing comprehensive service delivery to victims without compromising the legal case or hindering legitimate media demands:

  • Identify, coordinate, collect, and inventory local resources, including funds, staff, and services, for the survivors and victim family members.

  • Maintain records regarding donations and resources and compile a resource directory containing food, lodging, transportation, and local victim service information.

  • Coordinate medical and mental health assistance to the victims, including recruiting and training qualified mental health professionals to work as volunteers at the Safe Haven.

  • Supervise a volunteer coordinator and support staff at the Safe Haven.

  • Help coordinate the response of Denver businesses, agencies, and community groups through attendance at community meetings, prompt referrals, and provision of information on victim needs.

  • Prepare a written security plan including screening and credentialing volunteers.

  • Develop procedures for transportation, hotel, and food vouchers.

Quote from Krista Flannigan, Director, CORCAccording to many members of CORC, having a year between the organization's founding and the beginning of the first trial to prepare proved extremely helpful. Among the materials developed were procedures and rules governing the volunteers' schedules, transportation, security, safety, debriefing, media contact, insurance, liability, and confidentiality. A statement defining the Safe Haven's position on mandatory disclosure and recordkeeping by mental health professionals was also developed. Other handouts addressed ways of responding to victims or included maps, restaurant and entertainment guides, and other resources.

The change of venue required a great deal of cooperation and understanding on the part of the agencies and organizations working with the victims in both cities. Time and effort were required to develop trust and to address differences in roles and perspectives among these agencies and organizations. With OVC's active intervention and the victims' arrival for the first trial, tensions eased among the key agencies working with the victims.

Quote from Steve Siegel, Denver Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement BoardThe need to clarify roles illustrated the unique circumstances that emerge from a change in venue, particularly when the new venue is so far from the jurisdiction trying the case. In addition, it was critical to carefully balance the needs and rights of victims and the need to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice process. The U.S. Department of Justice's letter to CORC concluded: "In most everyday situations, private citizens who desire to help others in time of tragedy can do so without interference or restriction. However, here, the situation involves a federal criminal prosecution, with all its attendant restrictions. The cost of any missteps could be great" (Solano et al., August 15, 1996).

Victims' Rights and Services During the Trials

Once the trials began, the victims needed support services in both Oklahoma City and Denver. This assistance included CCTV broadcasts of the trial in Oklahoma City, an explanation of the trial events, and information and emotional support to help victims cope with testimony, evidence, and court decisions.

Closed-Circuit Television Broadcasts

In deference to victim wishes, the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit began searching for a secure facility in Oklahoma City that could accommodate large numbers of victims who might want to watch CCTV broadcasts of the trial. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offered its auditorium and additional space in the FAA building for a "Safe Haven" for the bombing victims. Prosecutors then requested the court to transfer the CCTV broadcasts to the FAA site. Judge Matsch granted the motion. The Attorney Liaison assisted the trial team in preparing two motions: one urging adoption of victim definitions from the Victim's Rights and Restitution Act as criteria for CCTV admission eligibility; the second proposing an application process for approving individuals who would view CCTV broadcasts. Judge Matsch granted both motions, issuing an Admission Order on February 26, 1997. He also assigned Judge Gasper Perricone, a retired Colorado State judge, to preside over the CCTV broadcasts of the trials.15

In the 4 weeks between the issuance of Judge Matsch's Admission Order and commencement of the CCTV reservation system, the Unit notified the entire victim database (2,100 persons) of their eligibility to attend the CCTV broadcasts and accomplished the following:

  • Certified more than 1,100 persons to view the CCTV broadcasts.

  • Transmitted forms of ineligible applicants to Judge Matsch.

  • Notified certified persons of "badging" dates.

  • Staffed badging operations on 7 days when 850 victims received their badges.

  • Learned to operate the reservation system.

  • Mailed instructions on how to use the system to all certified victims.

Attendance fluctuated, but some victims attended every day of the court proceedings. During the sentencing phase of the McVeigh trial, as many as 300 victims attended the CCTV broadcast sessions. During the Nichols trial, CCTV broadcast attendance totaled 1,062 (Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, May 31, 1998).

Victims appreciated the presence of Judge Perricone and his assistance in explaining legal proceedings. Many expressed disappointment, however, in the quality of the CCTV picture. Not only was the picture somewhat fuzzy but also a fixed camera built into the back wall of the courtroom eliminated variety in focus and prohibited viewers from observing the defendants' faces.16

Trial Phases Explanation of Trial Events

Part of the Attorney Liaison's role was to debrief victims about the day's legal proceedings after court had recessed. She explained the relevance of what had been heard and seen that day in court and what could be anticipated for the next day of trial. Her discussions with the victims at the Safe Haven made sense of attorney decisions, judicial rulings, strictures on witness testimony, and the sequence of trial events. In addition to answering the victims' questions, the debriefings warned survivors and family members observing the trial about upcoming potentially painful testimony or exhibits. These debriefings allowed individuals to prepare psychologically or to choose not to attend the session. These meetings generally concluded with a brief discussion of ways in which the victims could take care of themselves emotionally. Project Heartland counselors were present to assist, if needed, in this phase of the debriefings.

Through the Attorney Liaison, the victims had a direct link with the prosecution team. As a member of the team, she not only advocated for the victims' interests, but also explained the prosecution's issues and procedures to the victims. One of the issues the Attorney Liaison was not able to resolve, however, was the lack of sufficient seating for victims in the courtroom. The fact that the media were assigned more seats than family members caused considerable irritation. Even worse, seating arrangements sometimes placed victims next to the defendant's family—a source of stress and pain.

The Victim-Witness Center, Denver

Quote from Diane Leonard, widow of a bombing victimThe Victim-Witness Center was created through the joint efforts of the victim-witness coordinators from the U.S. Attorneys' Offices for the Western District of Oklahoma and the District of Colorado. Located next to the courthouse, the Center was comfortably furnished and provided free local and long-distance telephone service. Here, prosecutors met with witnesses prior to testifying. The victim-witness coordinators were responsible for making travel and lodging arrangements for witnesses, coordinated duties with the FBI witness coordinator 7 days a week, and fielded calls from witnesses traveling to Denver. In addition, the victim-witness coordinators addressed other witness needs such as arranging witnesses' travel to and from court, answering their questions pertaining to the trials, and keeping them informed of the judicial process.

Mental Health Support and the Safe Havens

Over the 11 weeks of the McVeigh trial and during the Nichols trial, the Safe Havens in Oklahoma City and Denver provided mental health services, food, free telephone service, and privacy to victims and family members. Project Heartland counselors addressed victims' apprehensions before appearing in court and provided counseling and debriefings to victims after upsetting testimony, exhibits, rulings, or other aspects of the trial. In the case of the Denver Safe Haven, Project Heartland counselors were able to communicate to the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit possible concerns the witnesses may have had based on what family members were communicating in the Safe Haven facility. Project Heartland activities also included training and sensitizing staff and volunteers who would be involved with victims, family members, and support people at CORC, the Victim-Witness Center in Denver, and the CCTV trial broadcast facility in Oklahoma City. Again, OVC support enabled Project Heartland staff to travel to Denver to meet these critical needs.

The Safe Havens were also designed to be secure havens for the victims and families of victims. Security procedures were carefully planned. Volunteers and member groups were barred from speaking with the media, and the press agreed to maintain its distance from the Safe Havens. With few exceptions, the media respected victims' privacy. Some victims, however, initiated their own contacts with reporters.

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Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000