OU law professor still affected by McVeigh’s case
At 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, a truck filled with diesel fuel and fertilizer rigged as a bomb exploded in downtown Oklahoma City, taking half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and 168 lives with it.
About 90 minutes later, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Timothy McVeigh’s car near Billings for a missing license plate. McVeigh would go on to be charged with conspiracy and murder for detonating the vehicle bomb at the Murrah Building. Americans, especially those in Oklahoma, quickly began to spit his name in the same way a Jew might Hitler’s or a dissident Stalin’s.
Despite all of that, Randall Coyne, professor at the College of Law, gave six months of his life in an ultimately vain attempt to prevent McVeigh’s execution.
“There were many people that said ... if the death penalty was intended for any individual, it was intended for the likes of Timothy McVeigh,” Coyne said. “ ... but through experience and working in capital cases, I’ve come to believe, come to know, that the death penalty wasn’t reserved for the worst of the worst. And, although the enormity of Timothy McVeigh’s crime is undeniable, and my deepest sympathy and empathy was extended then and is extended now to the victims, those who suffered, I don’t believe Timothy McVeigh is the worst of the worst. Nor do I think any of us deserved to be judged by the worst thing we’ve done. Because that’s not who we are. That is the worst thing we’ve done.”
CONVERTED FROM CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Coyne’s first career was a run as a music teacher, seemingly ideal for a drummer, but a long way from arguing for a man’s life.
“As a music ed major, I always felt like I really didn’t get much respect, because, to be frank, it’s kind of a candy-ass degree,” he said. “With all due respect with all those who are studying it.”
With the school he taught at facing a shrinking music education budget, Coyne decided to make a career change.
“I always knew lawyers were held in high esteem ... so I went to law school in hopes of becoming a law teacher, but also in hopes of proving to myself that I was smart. That I could do it,” Coyne said.
Two years after receiving his law degree at Georgetown University, Coyne became involved with his first death-penalty case, when he aided Federico Macias’ appeal from his murder conviction in Texas. Macias, convicted in 1984 and sentenced to die in 1988, had his conviction overturned in 1993 after a federal appeals court found Macias’ trial counsel was ineffective.
“That changed my thinking about the death penalty, because although it had a superficial appeal to me, when I looked into the circumstances involving that case ... I quickly concluded that, had I been on trial, this white, middle-class college-educated person been on trial, instead of this poor, Hispanic, drug-addicted person, that perhaps mercy would have been extended to me in a way that it wasn’t extended to Fred.”
Lauren Harned, The Oklahoma Daily
However, Coyne said even if he was convinced Macias, or any other convicted murder had received a completely fair trial, he would now still oppose execution, saying the government and its agents, including prosecutors, judges and juries do not have “the competence to make those life and death decisions.”
However, while he said he no longer believes in the Old Testament notion of an eye for an eye, vengeance still plays a role in his anti-death penalty beliefs.
“I know that when you’re in prison, even though you may become adjusted to it, you suffer,” Coyne said. “And, you have to live with your crime every day. And, folks who think that prisons are country clubs are folks that haven’t visited prisons, or at least seen the inside of prisons, and seen that type of life.
“In my manner of thinking, life without parole is in many sense a more severe punishment than death. Death, in other words, is too good, in my view, for some crimes.”
ENTRY OF APPEARANCE
McVeigh’s lead attorney, Stephen Jones, said another member of the legal team, Richard Burr, originally planned to tap Coyne’s academic expertise on capital punishment. Coyne teaches criminal and Constitutional law, along with capital punishment law, at OU. However, Jones said, those plans quickly changed.
“Randy came on the team as one of our resident legal experts on defending against the death penalty,” Jones said. “And his role sort of grew from that to sort of being our legal counsel on matters relating to the death penalty.”
Coyne took an unpaid, six-month leave of absence from OU to defend McVeigh.
“My view has always been that the faculty of the law school are entitled to say or do anything within the bounds of propriety,” said Andy Coats, dean of the OU College of Law, when discussing whether there would be controversy about an OU law professor defending arguably Oklahoma’s greatest villain. “And, that I thought, certainly, representing or being involved in the suit of McVeigh was a very appropriate thing for a lawyer to do. I mean, he’s entitled to a good defense, and I knew with Randy’s skills, if Randy was there, he’d have a good defense.”
‘THE MEDIA HAS THEIR JOB TO DO AS WELL, AND IT’S DANGEROUS GETTING TOO CLOSE’
Coyne heard of the attack on the Murrah Building in the same way most Americans and Oklahomans did — first, from did-you-hear-about whispers, then on television. In an article he wrote for the Cooley Law School’s Journal of Ethics and Responsibility titled “Collateral Damage In Defense of Timothy McVeigh,” Coyne wrote about showing up for work April 19 to find television sets, students, faculty and staff filling the lobby of the College of Law.
However, the attack became more personal one evening shortly after the attack, when a reporter left a message on his answering machine, hoping to set up an interview. This reporter, however, wasn’t looking for a discussion of legal issues, or even an account of his wife’s evacuation from downtown. Instead, Coyne said this reporter had reached him by mistake. The journalist instead was trying to talk with the parents of a Jaci Coyne, a 14-month-old who died in the blast.
“It was rather chilling to receive that phone message,” Coyne said. “At the time, my wife and I had a little girl who was [19 months] old. I’m not sure how old Jaci Coyne was, but the message struck me as rather insensitive.”
Despite his initial encounter with the journalists covering the attack, Coyne would give interviews to media outlets looking for analysis of McVeigh’s legal case, he wrote. He also wrote these interviews became fewer as he became more involved with McVeigh’s defense.
As his role on the legal team expanded, so too did Coyne’s disagreements with a particular part of Jones’ strategy to, as Coyne said, use members of the press both as “additional investigators” who were out on the street developing information, and in an attempt to rehabilitate McVeigh’s public image. And, Coyne said reporters covering the case were “useful to some degree in developing information.” Jones said some media members “gave the defense some very important information that we would not have otherwise received.”
Coyne, however, disagreed with Jones’ close relationship with those reporters, which included answering calls from the New York Times during strategy meetings, he said.
Jones said he did not remember taking any such calls, but said it was “certainly possible.”
“I’m sure I took calls at all times from media people, [the] judge, [the] federal prosecutor, [the] FBI, lawyers [and] witnesses,” he said.
If a relationship with the media had value to McVeigh’s defense, it also delivered a huge setback when The Dallas Morning News and Playboy Magazine published what Coyne said were “alleged confessions” from McVeigh, regarding his guilt in the attack on downtown Oklahoma City.
Jones said the leaks came from members of the defense team, but he did not believe the information came from any of the lawyers defending McVeigh.
“Those types of leaks unfortunately happen, and it happened in this case and it was reprehensible and a lack of professionalism and a betrayal,” Jones said.
Court documents show the admissions were published less than a month after potential jurors in the Denver area received notice that they were candidates for empanelment in the McVeigh case. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a defense request for an indefinite continuance, and the void dire of potential jurors began barely a month after The Dallas Morning News published its article.
“The media is not the friend of the defense,” Coyne said. “It’s not the friend of the prosecution. And, although they can flatter you and give you national exposure and you can appear on Nightline and have lunch with Diane Sawyer and sip tea with Barbara Walters, the media has their job to do as well, and it’s dangerous getting too close.”
‘TIMOTHY MCVEIGH WASN’T A COLD, HEARTLESS PSYCHOPATH’
Despite the blow to the case provided by the publication of McVeigh’s confessions, Coyne said he had hope at least one juror would look at the whole of McVeigh’s life and be reluctant to impose a death sentence. McVeigh suffered through a difficult childhood and was an “exemplary soldier,” decorated with a Bronze Star with a V device, the V standing for valor. Following his conviction, Jones said 38 people testified on McVeigh’s behalf as the defense presented its mitigation case.
“He was, in many senses, a compassionate, dedicated person,” Coyne said. “He loved his country, up to a point. And then, obviously, things took a very ugly turn in his life.”
Coyne said the pivot point for McVeigh’s ugly turn was the 51-day standoff near Waco, Texas, between federal agents and members of a religious group known as the Branch Davidians. The showdown ended when the Davidians’ building burned, killing about 80 people. The federal government has claimed the Davidians started the fire in an attempt to commit mass suicide, but some surviving Davidians and a researcher for a documentary have claimed the flames erupted when federal agents used tear gas and flash-bang devices in an attempt to end the standoff.
“My conclusion was that experience profoundly changed him,” Coyne said. “And after that, there burned inside him a hatred of the government, that, unfortunately wasn’t extinguished before the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Two years to the day after the Branch Davidian building burned, the Murrah Building exploded.
“He was very disturbed by the government’s handling of the Waco ... situation.” Coyne said. “And did have enormous empathy for the people who died at Waco. ... That’s not to condone or suggest that his actions were in any sense justified or correct. But, just to make the point that Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a cold, heartless psychopath, utterly without feeling.”
Despite that emotion, and the love Coyne said McVeigh felt for his family, McVeigh did not show the same emotion, when it came to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Coyne said.
“When you [talked] to Timothy McVeigh about the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, then a wall would come up,” Coyne said. “And, I don’t know if it was self-protection, if he could never confront the enormity of the crime, and in particular the deaths of the 19 children in the day care center. But, his demeanor would change.”
McVeigh might have been able to put up a wall. Coyne, however, wasn’t, despite his efforts to shield himself against the enormity of both the crime and his responsibilities to McVeigh.
Those responsibilities required Coyne to leave his wife and young daughter for about six months in 1997. Coyne said he moved temporarily to Denver on Jan. 1 of that year, taking a leave of absence from his teaching duties at OU. McVeigh was sentenced to death on June 13 of that year.
That separation from a daughter not yet four years old hit particularly hard during one weekend return home, where he came back to Norman late one night and decided to surprise his daughter, Marley, with his return early the next morning.
“[Marley] walked into the bedroom, and [Coyne’s then wife] ... said ‘Guess who’s in bed with Mommy?’ And Marley said ‘I don’t know, Mommy, who?’” Coyne’s daughter didn’t recognize him.
Added to that were autopsy photos and other grotesque pieces of evidence that constantly reminded Coyne “of the deaths of so many wonderfully talented people. Senseless deaths.”
Coyne also attended an execution during that time, the only one he said he’s ever attended, despite his more than 20 years of experience in capital cases, many of which have ended in ultimate defeat.
“If you’re on the defense side of capital cases, you better get used to losing,” Coyne said. “It’s almost ironic and perhaps a bit perverse that the very first capital case that I became involved with ... was a case in which we won. ... He walked out of prison. He walked out from under a sentence of death. Beginner’s luck.”
And defeat always creates doubt, he said as to whether there was something left undone that could have made a difference.
McVeigh was executed June 12, 2001, four years less a day after a jury decided he would be. In that four-year time frame, Coyne returned to Oklahoma and attempted to resume his teaching and family duties.
It would be a while before he could do either. In his article for the Cooley Law School’s journal, Coyne wrote about the effect his increasing dependence on alcohol had on his attempts to return to a home routine.
“I withdrew totally from my wife and daughter, preferring the company of Foster’s beer and the solitude of my locked office,” he wrote. “My priorities had become so distorted that I resented the time it took to put my daughter Marley to bed and dreaded being asked to read her a bedtime story because doing so would delay my nightly appointment with drink and oblivion.”
Coyne wrote he engaged in “half-hearted” attempts at antidepressants and therapy. He said he was able to find solace in teaching, for a time, finding students “genuinely interested” in his experiences. Eventually, though, Coyne became prone to absenteeism, he wrote.
A second attempt at treatment followed, and Coyne wrote he took this one more seriously. It didn’t matter, though. It simply delayed the consequences of his alcoholism. Coyne would eventually leave his teaching post for 1 1/2 years, in what Coats called an agreement between himself, Coyne and the OU provost. It did cost Coyne his tenure.
“He had a bad time,” Coats said. “I don’t know whether it was connected to that case, but I know he had terrific frustrations with the way that case was done, and I think it impacted him some.”
He and his wife separated, and she filed for divorce in 2003, a request granted in 2005.
“It would be interesting to talk to the other folks, on the prosecution and the defense team, or the FBI agents, to see what kind of fall out there might have been,” Coyne said. “I suspect, that if you look at lawyers, in particular, but others that are involved in high profile cases, you might find a pretty high rate of alcohol abuse, of divorce, of emotional disturbances.”
APRIL 19, 2010
Eventually, Coyne returned to OU and the university restored his tenure.
“I had such a high regard for his skills as a teacher and his care about his students, that I wanted to be sure he was preserved for the law school,” Coats said of Coyne’s agreed-upon suspension and return.
He’s not remarried, though he and his ex-wife, University of Tulsa law professor Lyn Entzeroth, continue to co-author a casebook for capital punishment classes. He’s also the father of a second daughter, now 5 years old.
Coyne also continues to take clients outside of his teaching work, currently appealing Scott Eizember’s 2003 Oklahoma death sentence. Eizember received the death penalty for murdering a man in Depew.
He’s also aiding in the defense of Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in federal court, not by a military tribunal. Ghailani is charged in connection with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“I really like the niche of being, you know, in the ivory tower,” Coyne said. “And, sticking a big toe in the water once in a while. Test it out. I mean, my cases inform my teaching. My teaching helps me be more effective on the cases. So, there’s a cross-fertilization of ideas.”
Coyne said one lesson he took from the McVeigh case, when it comes to defending new clients, is distance.
“I always want to do the very best that I can,” Coyne said. “But I think I’m less, or I hope that I’m less, self-critical about the job that I’ve done.”
A passion Coyne has been able to reclaim is his drumming. He wrote of his fears of returning to perform, as venues that promote live music also tend to be places where drinking alcohol isn’t simply available: it’s part of the atmosphere.
Still, the trial had a lasting effect on him. He only takes cable so that he can watch movies when his daughters visit, or to catch the occasional sporting event, he said. He doesn’t watch television news anymore. More seriously, he said he still gets a chill whenever he meets someone who lost a loved one 15 years ago in downtown Oklahoma City.
He understood the risks, though, when he agreed to join McVeigh’s legal team, he said.
“I walked into the case with eyes open,” he said. “I bear full responsibility for it. I’m not suggesting there are any excuses. No one forced me to represent Timothy McVeigh, like no one forced me to drink. And I did both, voluntarily.”
-The Associated Press and The Oklahoma Daily archives contributed to this report.