Executive Summary

The April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (Murrah Building) in Oklahoma City sent shock waves throughout America. This event was the most devastating incident of domestic terrorism in our Nation's history. The shock of this terrorist act was magnified by its location—the very center of our country. "This is the place, after all, where terrorists don't venture. The Heartland. Wednesday [April 19] changed everything" (The Daily Oklahoman, April 20, 1995). The effect of the bombing was far reaching—extending well beyond the borders of Oklahoma. It created mass casualties and injuries, affecting not only the immediate victims, survivors, and the Oklahoma City community but also the entire Nation.

In recent years, the Federal Government has been called upon to play a larger role in mitigating and responding to all types of human-caused violent events and disasters. The federal responsibility ranges from immediate disaster relief to long-term assistance that helps communities to recover from the event. Moreover, because terrorist acts are federal crimes, investigated and prosecuted by federal law enforcement officials, federal criminal justice agencies have statutory responsibilities related to victims' rights and services in connection with terrorism criminal cases. This range of responsibilities raises the issue of the Federal Government's preparedness to respond to acts of terrorism and the resulting emotional and psychological impacts. Lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing response provide a foundation for recommendations to improve planning for services to victims of terrorism in the future, keeping in mind that planning must be flexible to meet the unique circumstances involved in each incident. For example, the demands to provide services to victims overseas or to victims who are not from the location of the criminal event pose different challenges from those raised by the Oklahoma City bombing. Analysis of the Oklahoma City bombing and other large terrorism events the Federal Government has responded to over the years reveals a consistent progression of victim assistance challenges for federal agencies with responsibilities in those situations:

  1. The immediate crisis must be handled.

  2. Postcrisis victim needs must be met.

  3. Victims' rights and services must be provided during any criminal justice process.

  4. Long-term victim needs must be recognized and provided for as they emerge over time.

This report identifies the special measures needed to protect the rights and meet the needs of victims of a large-scale terrorist attack involving mass casualties. In particular, it demonstrates efforts required to ensure an effective response to victims' rights and their short- and long-term emotional and psychological needs as an integral part of a comprehensive response to terrorism cases involving mass casualties. This report does not attempt to portray a complete picture of everything that was done for the victims, and the recommendations are not intended to present a comprehensive plan for addressing the needs of victims. It is a place to begin, based upon the experiences of OVC in working with victims and providing resources for assistance.

The primary sources for the information and recommendations presented in this report are interviews and meetings with victims and staff of the following organizations that were supported by grants from the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) Emergency Reserve Fund:

  • United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma: The Federal Government office responsible for prosecuting the case and ensuring the provision of victims' rights and services as outlined in federal law and the 1995 Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance. The efforts of the Western District were later supplemented by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado. The Victim-Witness Assistance Unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma worked with the prosecution team in both locations to establish policies and procedures for the trials.

  • Project Heartland, Oklahoma City: An organization established by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to coordinate and deliver mental health services for bombing victims.

  • Colorado Oklahoma Resource Council, Denver: A broad-based public-private coalition that coordinated services for victims throughout the trials in Denver.

  • Critical Incident Workshop Group, Inc., Oklahoma: An organization created to provide therapeutic debriefing sessions for families of deceased bombing victims, survivors, and rescue-and-recovery workers.

  • Oklahoma State Crime Victim Compensation Program: A state agency that provided financial assistance with funding support from OVC to crime victims for crime-related expenses such as funeral costs, medical and mental health expenses, and lost wages.

Quote from Attorney General Janet RenoPolicy recommendations from the above groups, in some cases, were broadened to incorporate OVC's experience working with terrorism victims including those from the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the bombing of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing for the trial that began in May 2000.

These recommendations are addressed to those who are responsible for victim assistance reforms, including criminal justice policymakers in the executive and judicial branches of the Federal Government, state legislators, and city and county administrators. The report should also prove valuable to prosecutors, law enforcement officials, victim advocates, mental health providers, and all others involved in victim-witness assistance efforts. Its attention to the importance of preplanning and coordination among responding agencies has implications for any agency committed to serving the needs of crime victims.

The report begins with background information addressing the victims' needs that emerged during the immediate crisis of the Oklahoma City bombing, the postcrisis victim needs after the immediate crisis was dealt with, victims' needs during the criminal justice process, and the long-term victim needs that developed over time. These sections are followed by a discussion of the laws that require victims' rights and services to be a part of any crisis response plan. The final sections identify the lessons learned as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing and the other terrorism events that followed it and present policy recommendations that promote future preparedness. All of these criminal events have raised the following questions:

  • What are the needs of the victims, the first responders, and others who come into contact with the victims and/or the first responders (e.g., prosecutors, mental health professionals, and family members of the first responders)?

  • What are the legal requirements for responding to victims of terrorism?

  • What are the chief obstacles to meeting victims' needs (e.g., privacy issues versus the need for victim contact information regarding the criminal justice process, change of venue, and victim services)?

  • What are the unique needs of terrorism victims abroad as identified in the Khobar Towers and East Africa bombings and trial assistance for the Pan Am Flight 103 families?

Based on the recommendations that form these last sections, OVC hopes that public officials will be better informed and able to develop more effective procedures for responding to future acts of terrorism.

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Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000