Search and Seizure Key to Defense in Bomb Case

Article excerpt

The defense in the Oklahoma City bombing case faces one of its first major legal tests this week.

At a three-day hearing beginning today, attorneys for bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols will argue that key evidence against the defendants be thrown out. They claim that federal investigators mishandled searches and interrogations.

The dispute raises broad constitutional questions about the state of search and seizure laws in the United States. It will also test how far investigators can go in pursuing a suspected criminal.

In dispute are whether search warrants, an incriminating statement from Mr. Nichols, and objects seized from Mr. McVeigh were obtained legally.

Defense attorneys maintain that the procedures were improper and that resulting evidence therefore should be excluded from the coming trial.

Federal prosecutors counter that all searches, seizures, and statements obtained in investigating the April 19, 1995, bombing in Oklahoma City were completed according to the law.

Legal experts say questions about police and FBI conduct are not unusual given the complexity of the investigation.

"I'd be amazed if the question of investigators' conduct didn't come up in a case like this," says Mimi Wesson, a former assistant US attorney and an interim dean at the University of Colorado School of Law. "Every police officer, every government agent, has to be prepared to have their conduct scrutinized."

But she and others say it would also be surprising if the contested evidence were thrown out. Legal experts say the current trend is toward granting law-enforcement officials more latitude in gathering evidence.

"Recent legal decisions support allowing police officers more latitude" in their investigations, Ms. Wesson says. She offers the O.J. Simpson murder trial as an example: Police were considered justified in going to the Simpson estate and poking around after his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, was killed.

Some observers suggest that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments - which, respectively, protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and guarantee the privilege against self-incrimination - are even being eroded. …