Mike Leeper was the manager of a retail electronic store in Boulder, Colo., on April 19, 1995, the day Timothy McVeigh parked a yellow Ryder rental truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, lit the fuse, and walked away. The bombing killed 168 people, including 19 small children in a daycare center located directly over the spot where the truck had been parked.
McVeigh was quickly captured. So was his co-conspirator, a former Army buddy named Terry Nichols. And the two bomb plotters were tried in federal court in Denver, Colo., after a judge moved the trial from Oklahoma City because of the intense prejudice that community felt toward the two men. That’s where Leeper comes in. In 1996 and 1997, selected from a thousand candidates, he served as a juror in the McVeigh case. The jury ultimately found McVeigh guilty of murder, terrorism, and conspiracy. Leeper and his fellow jurors also recommended a death sentence for the Oklahoma City bomber, a punishment that was carried out in Terre Haute, Ind., on June 11, 2001.
This week, as the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial winds down in Boston, we caught up with Leeper to learn more about what it’s like to be a juror in a high-profile domestic terror trial. He said the experience of serving together on the McVeigh trial created such a tight bond among most jurors that they still occasionally meet to update one another on what’s happening in their lives. “No war stories,” Leeper said.
Do you remember how you came to learn that you’d be called for jury duty for the McVeigh trial?
I guess I was one of the thousand people who received the jury notice back in October . Because there were a thousand people, they divided us into two groups. It was fairly straightforward. “You are being called as a juror.” And the first thing they did, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch swore us in and told us that we were to not follow the trial or any of the news or read up on it. And that they would be in touch.
Did you talk about it with your family?
My wife was more interested in it than I was. It was a fairly busy time in our lives. We had a baby. A five year old. Your days are pretty full of day-to-day functions. I was sort of in awe of showing up in a room full of hundreds of people. The thing that was interesting was that people would say, “Oh you are going to be exposed.” Nobody knew at that time what McVeigh’s interest was and how many people were following him. So there was a little apprehension about that.
What do you remember about jury selection?
I was very impressed with the professionalism of the lawyers they had gathered together. The big fear that I had was being involved in a big, public trial. Recent memories were of the OJ debacle and all of that. I remember believing strongly that our system, while not perfect, is better than anything else you see out there. I was kind of embarrassed for how that OJ trial was handled and how the jury was handled.
Do you remember how you learned that you would be a juror in that trial? How did you get notified? Did you want to do it?
I had never been on a jury. I remember they got it narrowed down to just a couple hundred people. We weren’t really sure what was going on. And they said, “We are going to start this, a process.” And so they called out names. The first group of people were to sit in the jury box. I was in that group. So we were sitting there, looking at each other, thinking we were going to get more questions. And then the judge comes in and says, “And the rest of you are excused.” That was it. We were all given numbers. I was Juror No. 5.
What do you remember about the trial?
There were days that were incredibly tedious. The telephone testimony1 that went on for day after day after day. I understand what they were doing, to absolutely leave no stone unturned. But at that time, we were not allowed to take notes, we weren’t allowed to do anything else. We were trying to pay intense attention not knowing what is important and what is not important, what will you remember and what will you not. I remember the graphicness of the testimony of the survivors and the families, and that was pretty overwhelming. Just a sadness of totally innocent people who did nothing wrong on that day. There were so many.
What do you remember about the lawyers and the judge and the witnesses? Is there a single moment that stands out to you?
I was very very proud of Judge Matsch. It was obviously his courtroom. He was in charge. Sometimes you weren’t sure that he was paying attention, but he was a sharp cookie and he wasn’t going to let anybody get away with anything at any time. He even called us out. He was very impressive. I remember being a part of a group where when we were done, we felt like everyone had gotten a fair shot — that there was no monkey business.
Okay, the testimony is over and you are deliberating. What can you tell me about how you felt inside that room?
There was a period where we were in private for once and got to know the people we had spent all this time with, who we had never been able to communicate with. We had been with a marshall or an officer of the court at all times. So this was the first time we could really talk. We felt a freedom to get organized. We saw the dynamics. We had certain people who remembered the telephone testimony. You see the benefit of having a wide variety of people when we were having to depend on memory — how that helps.
Now you are deliberating over life and death. What was that like? What do you remember about it?
My impression was that we were very businesslike — there was no call for an early vote. We talked it out. Made sure everybody felt comfortable and that they had explored every avenue. What the thoughts were of McVeigh’s intentions, whether we could live with our decision when we walked out of there. Once everybody got to that point, we took one vote and we were done.
How has time changed your view of the trial and of the criminal justice system in general?
I am very proud of what we did, how we conducted ourselves. If anything, I would like to think that we set a nice standard for what I would like to see if, God forbid, anybody I knew was called upon to be in a courtroom in a less-than-perfect situation — that they would have the same kind of representation and the same kind of jury that we represented there.
If you could give Tsarnaev’s jurors any advice as they proceed toward deliberations, what would you say?
Be sure about your decision, that you can live with it. Be sure that you conduct yourself in an honest and forthright manner. Support the system that we have.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.