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Federal prosecutor details role in bombing trial

Although the Wilson School seniors' end-of-thesis celebration in the fountain may have been Robertson Hall's most visible event yesterday afternoon, some people focused their attention on a speech by Justice Department attorney Beth Wilkinson '84 in Dodds Auditorium.

In her talk, entitled "The Oklahoma City Bombing Trial," Wilkinson, Special Attorney to the United States Attorney General, reflected on her experience as a prosecutor in the case United States v. McVeigh & Nichols. The speech was part of an ongoing series of lectures jointly presented by the Wilson School and the ROTC Army Officer Education Program in memory of John Page '26.

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Wilkinson said that while it was difficult during the case to determine what justice is, "it was easy to know how important it was."

She emphasized the importance of a dignified and fair judicial process. "In the face of this horrific tragedy . . . instead of acting in a passionate way, as many countries would, we provided [Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols] with due process," Wilkinson said.

"Instead of acting with revenge and anger, we acted with fairness and justice," she said, noting that it could have been easy to respond with vengeance to the murder of168 people.

Wilkinson said she was not a proponent of the death penalty until she saw television coverage of the 1995 bombing – before she was even assigned to the case. She cautioned, however, that "the death penalty can be an appropriate sanction only if we have due process."

Emotional testimony

She also discussed her prosecution team's decision to weave blast victims' testimony throughout the guilt phase of the trial, a tactic criticized by some for appealing to the jury's emotions. "We believe we struck the right balance, but not everyone agreed," she said.

Wilkinson held back tears as she recalled two-and-a-half days' worth of "victim-impact" testimony given during the penalty phase of the trial, when different rules apply for the introduction of testimony. The 45 witnesses from that period included parents who had lost their children in the blast.

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In an interview before her speech, Wilkinson commented on the preparation Princeton gave her for her career. "I was lucky enough to be around a lot of good students and professors who taught me to think critically," she said. She was a member of ROTC while at Princeton.

"I saw a lot of people before me who had contributed to public service, and I knew I wanted to do the same," she added.

Before being assigned to the bombing case, Wilkinson successfully prosecuted a Colombian narco-terrorist for the bombing of an airliner and regularly worked with Attorney General Janet Reno on youth violence and domestic terrorism.

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