Center of the Storm
Stephen Jones invited controversy when he decided to represent Timothy McVeigh in 1995. And he isn’t done with the case yet.
Published in 2006 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
By Conger Beasley Jr. on November 7, 2006
Today Stephen Jones’ office is a calm haven compared to the chaos that swirled around him a decade ago. The walls of the oldfashioned, wood-paneled room on the 11th floor of the Broadway Tower Building in downtown Enid are covered with diplomas, plaques, awards and autographed photos of political and media celebrities.
Sturdy tomes line the shelves behind the solid desk that anchors the center of the room. The inlaid leather surface is cluttered with curios — busts, carvings, antique ink jars, silver-plated letter openers, ivory-handled magnifying glasses. Jones, a tall, courtly man with thinning reddish-gray hair, wears a blue serge suit and bright-red tie as he settles into a leather-upholstered chair.
Ten years ago, Jones was at the center of one of the most intense media blitzes in American history. From May 1995 to September 1997, he served as chief defense counsel to Timothy McVeigh, who was accused, and later convicted, of triggering the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6.
A few days after the explosion, U.S. District Judge David Russell asked Jones if he would defend McVeigh, who had been charged with the crime. Jones thought it over, discussed it with his family and law partners, and agreed. The decision changed his life. A small-town lawyer litigating a mix of smalltown stuff — divorces, wills, DUIs, estate planning — in addition to a few capital crimes and representing Fortune 500 companies, he suddenly found himself thrust into the middle of a national media frenzy. Friends and colleagues wondered why he decided to subject himself to such an ordeal.
He took the job, he says, because he believes it is the constitutional responsibility of an attorney to take on controversial cases. “As a member of the Oklahoma Bar, I believed in our obligation to defend the unpopular and the indigent,” he says, “even when it came to someone accused of such a barbarous crime as Timothy McVeigh.”
For his pivotal role in defending the case, Jones was alternately vilified and praised. Every day for two and a half years he read about himself in the newspapers. It was a high-profile life, and it took a long time for things to calm down. Today, 10 years later, he is the sole proprietor of the law firm of Jones, Otjen, Davis, Nixon & Juhl, which has offices in Enid and Oklahoma City. The seven-person staff deals primarily with white-collar crime, appellate work, and criminal and civil litigation.
As of press time, Jones is involved in another headline-grabbing case. He’s representing a former congressional page who received lewd Internet messages as a minor from former Rep. Mark Foley.
Good trial lawyers are made, not born, according to Jones. They evolve through hard work and experience. The best way to learn the craft is to watch other lawyers in the courtroom, he says.
Long-time Enid lawyer E.B. Mitchell Jr. was one of the best Jones ever saw. “It was a pleasure to watch him work,” he remembers. “He dressed in a low-key fashion and moved like a cat around the courtroom, laying out his argument with a minimum of words. He never let his emotions get in the way of the path of his relentless logic. He was adept at finding the weakness in the opposition’s argument, then moving in and demolishing it.”
Jones came to Enid in 1969. A native of Louisiana, he spent his undergraduate years at the University of Texas in Austin; his initial ambition was to become a journalist or a teacher. But after getting to know a few lawyers, he found himself tempted. “People get paid to do this?” he wondered. “It looks like fun.”
In 1963 he enrolled in the University of Oklahoma Law School. In the mid-1960s he worked as a personal researcher for Richard M. Nixon.
“Mr. Nixon was a great admirer of the French leader Charles de Gaulle,” Jones recalls. “He admired his strength, his vision, his willingness to think independently. That independence he tried to incorporate into his own political thinking. I remember an article he wrote that appeared in the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it — something that few world leaders had the audacity to do back then — he acknowledged the importance of China and the Chinese revolution.”
As exciting as it must have been to be privy to the thoughts of powerful international leaders, Jones’ heart was set on putting down roots in his adoptive state. In addition to practicing law in Oklahoma, he looked into the possibility of running for elective office.
“Oklahoma is an open place; Texas isn’t,” he says. “There’s more of the frontier spirit in Oklahoma. That’s why I was attracted to going there.”
With his customary thoroughness, he chose Enid. It was a town that had been literally born overnight in the wake of the biggest free-land settlement in U.S. history — the opening of the Cherokee outlet in 1893. The political climate when Jones arrived in 1969 was conservative and Republican — precisely his own orientation. He assembled a team of backers and advisers and ran for attorney general in 1974, but was defeated. He ran for elective office three more times, with the same result.
In the early years of his practice in Enid, he defended several high-profile murder cases that gained him statewide notoriety. He became known as a lawyer who wasn’t afraid to defend unpopular people and causes. And it wasn’t just capital murder trials that occupied his attention. In the 1970s he represented the right of political radicals such as Abbie Hoffman to express their objections to the war in Vietnam.
“He’s more than just a lawyer,” says Terry Holmes, assistant principal of Jane Phillips Elementary School in Bartlesville, whom Jones successfully represented in a major sexual harassment case. “He knocks himself out for his clients. He genuinely cares for them as human beings. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.” The case, which involved the Canton Public Schools, was settled out of court.
Through it all, the victories and the defeats, Jones honed his skills. He learned how to survive, even prevail, in the rough-and-tumble arena of Oklahoma courtroom law. The lessons he learned came at a price. In 1970 he lost his job with a prestigious Enid law firm when he defended a political protestor named Keith Green, who was arrested for carrying a Viet Cong flag in an ROTC rally at the University of Oklahoma.
But that was nothing compared to what he faced in 1995.
One of the first things that Jones insisted on was to have the defense conduct its own investigation into the available evidence regarding the explosion and the man (or men) who perpetrated it. From the outset, Jones didn’t trust the federal government’s handling of the case. He sensed officials were hiding things, engaging in willful obstruction; there were times when they patently refused to share important information. Jones was outraged; more to the point, he was dismayed — resorting to subterfuge was not how professional lawyers should behave.
When asked what he would do differently today, Jones says, “Two things. First, I’d restrict media access to Tim. All those reporters fed his ego and made him more difficult to work with. Second, I’d make a few changes in my personal staff. Some of them got caught up in the hoopla surrounding the case, and assumed things about Tim that they shouldn’t have.”
McVeigh was seductive, according to Jones. He’d tell somebody something in so-called confidence, and they would assume they had a special relationship with him. “He was really good at that,” Jones says.
“Some of my staff members underestimated Tim’s powers of manipulation,” Jones says. “Contrary to rumor or the image he projected on television, he wasn’t a loner or a deranged hillbilly. He had a lot of followers. Forty-two people came to Denver, where the case was tried, to testify on his behalf. Not one person came to support Terry Nichols. Tim had charisma; Nichols didn’t.”
Jones looks down at his hands, folded carefully in his lap. He measures his words carefully.
“Tim was smart and well-read. He knew American history. He knew the Constitution. He had no trouble calling himself a terrorist. He had a definite ax to grind. He felt the federal government stepped way over the line in the early 1990s, first at Ruby Ridge, then Waco. Had there been no federal assault on the Branch Davidians in 1993,” he says, “there would have been no Oklahoma City [bombing] in 1995.
“Simply put, McVeigh was out to even the score. He wanted to give the country a wake-up call. The practice of nonviolent protest a la Gandhi and Martin Luther King had no appeal for him. He wanted to change things by fire. In this sense he resembled the abolitionist John Brown in 1860, or the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s.”
Jones doesn’t rush his answers. He pauses, seemingly long enough to let the words fill up the space between his brain and his tongue, before letting them out in a steady, thoughtful manner.
“I’m not really shocked that the explosion took place,” he adds. “What shocked me was that it occurred in Oklahoma City. A hell of a twister was brewing. We know that now after what happened on September 11th.”
In 1998 Jones published a book with journalist Peter Israel titled Others Unknown: The Oklahoma City Bombing Case and Conspiracy. In it, he posits the theory that outsiders aided McVeigh and Nichols in their plan to blow up a major federal building in the United States. Jones believes there’s no way the two of them could have planned and pulled off the deed on their own. “They just didn’t have the expertise,” he claims.
The book came out to mixed reviews. “The press in Oklahoma pretty well demolished it,” Jones says. “The farther away from Oklahoma the reviewer lived, the more inclined he or she was to praise it.”
Jones has his critics, who will never be satisfied with the way he conducted McVeigh’s defense. He has his admirers as well, among them his former adversary, U.S. Attorney Larry Mackey of Indianapolis, who was chief deputy for the prosecution during the trial. “Stephen Jones is a noble, passionate, and able lawyer,” Mackey says, “who was given the nightmarish job of challenging the federal government’s case against Timothy McVeigh. The case turned out to be a key test of the American legal system — could it survive the trauma of this terrible disaster and prove to the American public that it still worked? Stephen Jones and his team put up a tremendous fight against overwhelming odds.”
Some of the theories that Jones advanced in the book were bound to raise a few hackles.
• He claims that the U.S. government may have had prior knowledge about the attack and failed to act on it.
• He claims that from the moment the bomb exploded, the U.S. government disregarded evidence that would have weakened its case against McVeigh and Nichols.
• He claims that there was a possibility of a link between Nichols and Islamic terrorist groups in the Philippines.
• He claims that the mysterious John Doe #2 was not only a real person, but also a key player in the priming and detonation of the bomb.
A full decade later Jones is still looking for the truth. “I just haven’t been able to close the circle yet on this case,” he says. “There are too many unanswered questions.”
There are others who are as disturbed by this lack of closure as he is.
“Recently,” Jones said, “I received a call from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he was interested in holding new hearings on the Oklahoma City bombing. He said to me, ‘Mr. Jones, please come to Washington. We need to get to the bottom of this.’
“A few weeks later his secretary called me back to cancel the offer.”
Jones looks up. It’s hard to tell sometimes what he really feels. The lawyerly mask that seals his features prevents anything genuinely expressive from leaking out.
“Somebody with real power on Capitol Hill wants the curtain down on this issue,” he says.
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