Posted on 10/8/18

It is strongly advised that someone facing criminal charges not defend him or herself as a pro se litigant; it is strongly advised that the individual retain a lawyer. The obvious reasons are that a non-lawyer is unfamiliar with the complexity of the court system, has never developed skills for arguing a case, and does not understand what winning in a court of law entails.

Another reason why pro se litigation is not advised is due to the personal attachment that a person has to a case. That is to say, an unattached party can better strategize when that person holds less personal interest in the case. On the other hand, a pro se litigant may be emotionally enslaved to his or her ideologies. The Timothy McVeigh trial, specifically the strategy the defense did not use, is a case in point.

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh was born and raised in Upstate New York. There, he developed a survivalist mentality that would shape the rest of his life. After dropping out of college and working odd jobs for a few years, he joined the US Army. There, he met Michigan-born Terri Nichols. Though Nichols was 13 years older and left the army shortly after joining to contest a divorce with his wife, McVeigh and Nichols remained friends after McVeigh finished his army duty.

McVeigh traveled to Michigan where he hooked up with Nichols. He lived in Nichols’s house for some time. He and Nichols tried to sell guns and other survival gear. There, Nichols introduced McVeigh to other survivalists who were part of America’s “Patriot” movement. During this time, McVeigh developed a strong dislike for the US government and saw the government as an oppressive regime. Interestingly, McVeigh viewed his service in the army as a positive, though the army is an arm of the US government.

In 1998, McVeigh and Nichols decided to attack the US government for its “oppressive” taxation and other means of control. They chose the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City because they believed it to be an easy target. McVeigh rented a Ryder truck in his own name and stashed it with explosives. At some point, Nichols decided not to go ahead with the plan.

McVeigh alone brought the truck underneath the building and set off the bomb, which killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. After he lit the bomb and before it exploded, McVeigh made his way to a getaway car parked not far from the bomb site. Shortly afterward, police pulled him over and arrested him for gun possession. The police, unaware of his involvement in the bombing, took him to prison and kept him there on an unrelated charge.

Police later found the truck’s VIN and traced it back to McVeigh. McVeigh was charged with terrorist acts. He faced the death penalty. When he first met with his lawyer, he insisted on using a necessity defense. That is to say, a person can claim that he acted in self-defense because it was necessary (e.g. killing someone before that person kills you is a necessity defense). McVeigh, believing the government was out to get him, believed that he had no choice but to fight back. This strategy was thoroughly flawed, though McVeigh felt that it was right. His lawyer talked him out of it.

Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel.

(image courtesy of Matthew Henry)

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