Blame OK on O.J.

The 11th-hour disclosure that the FBI misplaced over 3,000 pages of documents that should have been turned over to Timothy McVeigh’s defense counsel raises a possibility far stranger than the speculations being offered by the gleeful anti-government black-helicopter crowd. In the next days, close scrutiny of these documents by McVeigh’s defense team will unearth the truth about the Oklahoma City bombing: O.J. Simpson did it!

More correctly, they’ll discover that the same folks who framed O.J. in the killing of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman masterminded the bombing. They also killed JonBenet Ramsey. And who are they? The nameless killers ignored in the criminal investigations of one high-profile murder case after another.

How do “They” get away with it? The theory–established by O.J.’s criminal defense attorney Johnnie Cochran–holds that whenever police narrow the field to a single suspect, they not only stop looking for alternate suspects, they also suppress all evidence of any alternate suspects. As Cochran explained in his opening statement at the O.J. trial, “This case is about a rush to judgment, an obsession to win at any cost and by any means necessary.” Cochran continued:

The evidence will show that the prosecution in this case has enlisted the services of many, many police agencies across the United States, the FBI … they have gone around the world talking to witnesses. But the evidence will show they failed to go next door to Mr. Simpson’s house and talk to a witness … who provided him with an alibi.

Sound familiar?

In discussing the Simpson acquittal, Cochran often quotes H.L. Mencken, saying that for every problem, there is an obvious solution that is quick, easy, and wrong. Since O.J., “rush to judgment” has become a synonym for slapdash police work that rules out all but the high-profile suspect, subordinating a search for truth to the hunger to lay blame. Stephen Jones, McVeigh’s ex-lawyer, has a cuter term for it: “forensic prostitution,” the science of collecting only evidence of the prime suspect’s guilt. This same claim has been made by John and Patsy Ramsey, who still maintain that the Boulder, Colo., police allowed leads to go stale, and evidence of alternative suspects to wither, in their haste to pin JonBenet’s murder on them. The “ignored” evidence includes a broken window in their basement, missing house keys, an unidentified partial handprint and shoeprint, and DNA fluids found on the child’s body that don’t match that of any family member.

McVeigh’s case is stranger than Simpson’s or the Ramseys’ because he both admits to his guilt and today denied once again the existence of any John Doe No. 2. Still, his defense counsel, and his convicted co-conspirator Terry Nichols, want to hold open the possibility that McVeigh was involved with a larger group of terrorists and that McVeigh’s infinite narcissism makes it possible that he is lying to feed his own ego. The question is the same in all the cases: Who got away with what, and why did the police stop looking for them?

To be fair, most high-profile murders spur a rush to judgment, with the public demanding a speedy investigation and a successful prosecution–and attorneys general such as Janet Reno standing ready to satisfy. But the insistence that the only way to serve justice is by investigating every lead pointing away from the prosecution’s theory of the case is insane and theoretically endless. In the O.J. example, Cochran wanted the jury to find his client innocent because the prosecution failed to prove a negative–that is, that the mystery suspect didn’t do it. Cochran pilloried Tom Lange, one of the investigating officers in the case, by questioning him about why he never pursued the theory that Goldman had been assassinated in a drug-related incident. Lange replied that authorities looked “superficially” into drugs as a motive, but “in this particular case, we had another direction to go.” But Lange didn’t question Miss Piggy about the murder either–not because he’s a bad detective, but because he had no reason to believe she did it.

The only real relevance of the FBI files in the McVeigh case is that they open up the possibility not that McVeigh is innocent, but that some people we can’t find might also have been guilty. At most it means if McVeigh deserves to die, some other people deserved to die, too. This human tendency to ignore, misfile, or even suppress all the evidence of all the people who didn’t do it is hell if you believe that justice is a quest for truth (as opposed to just a joust to the death). If we think trials should reveal every nuance and detail of the crime, such revelations make us uneasy. Uneasy enough to, say, acquit O.J.

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s statements in deciding to delay this execution are actually killingly funny: “If any questions or doubts remain about this case, it would cast a permanent cloud over justice,” he said last week, and thus gave McVeigh a few more days to review the lost files. There will always be questions and doubts about this case because truth is a shade of gray, and justice happens mainly in black and white. Death sentences are always only best guesses about what really happened. We live with this uncertainty each time we execute someone. Timothy McVeigh will probably die with it.