McVeigh Defender To Speak At Cooley

May 1, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — A law school professor who worked as trial counsel on the defense team representing Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh will bring a very personal message to Grand Rapids in a presentation sponsored by the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Center for Ethics and Responsibility.

Attorney Randall Coyne will discuss his involvement in the case of The United States v. Timothy McVeigh, the “collateral damage” it caused in his personal and professional life, and his subsequent descent into alcoholism.

Judging by Coyne’s recent essay on the subject, his address at Cooley’s Grand Rapids Law Center on May 16 is bound to be a frank and moving recollection of how the tragedy of the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City consumed and nearly destroyed him.

A professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Coyne teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, capital punishment, constitutional law and legal aspects of terrorism. He told the Business Journal he never had any reservations about serving on McVeigh’s defense team, nor did he ever feel threatened for his safety or that of his family, despite public outrage over the deaths of 19 children and 149 adults in the blast.

A month after the bombing, Coyne received a call from the office of Stephen Jones, the attorney appointed as lead counsel for McVeigh. Coyne said none of his university peers at the time directly suggested that he refrain from involvement in the case, but he did receive calls from the president’s office asking him not to sit at McVeigh’s counsel table.

“I knew Tim was not a popular client to have, but he was a client that needed representation more than anyone else at that time,” Coyne recalled. He began serving as counsel to the defense in January 1997. From the start, Coyne had issues with lead attorney Jones’ relationship with the media. His essay “Collateral Damage in Defense of Timothy McVeigh” appears in the first issue of the new Cooley Journal of Ethics and Responsibility. In the article he notes: “Before long, my work as one of Tim McVeigh’s lawyers consumed all of my waking (and many of my resting) hours. Over the next two years, I would spend considerably more time with him than with any other human being.”

Coyne acknowledged he did some drinking after hours during the course of the trial, but said the booze really became a problem after the trial was over. What weighed on him so heavily?

“It was the enormity of everything. It was the victims; it was the suffering that was so graphically and emotionally depicted in the courtroom,” Coyne said with a slight shudder in his voice. “It was the feeling that Mr. McVeigh had not been well represented by his lawyers, including me. You always think you can do more for your client, but it felt like I was part of a sinking ship.

“I was plagued by nightmares of the victims and plagued by nightmares of Tim’s execution, as well. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in conversation with Mr. McVeigh about the case. You can’t represent a client at that close range for that period of time without forming a personal relationship.”

McVeigh was convicted of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history and was put to death in June 2001.

Upon returning to work at the University of Oklahoma law school, Coyne said he felt a deepening sense of alienation from his peers. Students were interested in his experiences on the McVeigh case, but the staff and faculty essentially ignored the time he had spent on the high-profile case. His drinking accelerated, and as he remembers it, he continued to work in “an alcohol-induced fog” and under “post-trial depression.” Eventually, his colleagues just avoided him altogether.

“Some of that, perhaps, was of my own doing,” he said of that period in his life. “I was drinking heavily and canceling classes.”

His personal and family life went down the tubes, as well. Coyne sought the help of a counselor and went into alcohol treatment. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. When he returned to school the next semester, he was suspended from the university and, later, stripped of tenure. The university demanded he take an 18-month administrative leave.

Coyne is now in his seventh year of sobriety; he’ll mark his eighth year on Nov. 23. In the past couple of years, he has been the recipient of two endowed positions at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, and he was voted by the student body this year as “Outstanding Professor of the Year.” Today he can even joke a little about being the only person he knows who has been twice tenured by the University of Oklahoma.

Coyne said he is reminded every day of the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing; the daughter of one of the bombing victims was in one of his classes last summer.

“She’s a palpable reminder to me of the suffering that was caused by that bombing,” he said. “There are consequences to representing clients that are charged with horrific acts. More generally, I think the legal profession is one that is at higher risk than other professions for alcohol and drug abuse. I think we need to be alert to that problem and try to help.”

Coyne’s experience illustrates some of the challenges that lawyers face and some of the ways in which they fail to meet those challenges, said Cooley Assistant Dean and Associate Professor Nelson Miller. He thinks Coyne’s story might help law students and practicing lawyers avoid some of the same pitfalls. The benefit to students, to lawyers and to the public of hearing the “confession of a lawyer,” Miller said, is that people tend to learn by recognizing their own failures and the failures of others.

“We all face temptations and challenges. But here we have a description by Professor Coyne of just what those challenges were, and — more importantly — of the attitudes he developed and followed that led to his demise,” Miller said. “I found his revelations very frank; he was extremely honest about his tendencies and the thinking patterns that brought on the problems that he faced. I think that’s where students, lawyers and the public will see some real value.”

For attorneys, just like for other professionals, professional responsibility is an important issue because it is the means by which attorneys ensure the fulfillment of their professional mission, according to Miller. He said Coyne’s dramatic experience helping to defend McVeigh underscores that the sound practice of law depends on the right ethical foundations.

“Professor Coyne’s candid, behind-the-scenes account shows the bad situation created and the personal toll taken when attorneys depart from those foundations,” Miller said.

Coyne concludes his essay with the following insight: “I’ve learned that rebuilding a reputation takes much longer than destroying one, and that trust is much harder to regain than to lose. But through it all, I’ve also known the spiritual satisfaction of introducing students who wrestle with their own addiction to the possibility of recovery.”     

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