BACK HOME IN ENID, OKLA., 86 miles north of the site where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood in Oklahoma City, Stephen Jones is very much a presence, and not just because he's one of the few lawyers in town who prefers tailored pinstriped suits to jeans and Stetsons. "He is the most dishonest person I've ever met, including all the criminals I've defended," says his onetime law partner Alec McNaughton, who nevertheless describes Jones as "brilliant."
Given that Jones now represents one of the most reviled defendants in U.S. history, Timothy McVeigh, the accused killer of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, his brilliance will be put to the test. As the government-appointed lawyer for McVeigh, whose trial is scheduled to begin in Denver on March 31, Jones, 56, faces a mountain of evidence linking his client to the blast. And Jones hasn't helped the case with his shaky handling of a purported confession by McVeigh. Jones claimed the leaked document was a hoax, then said it was concocted to coax a witness into talking. "That's what a lawyer's for," he says over a lunch of chili in his office in Denver, "to throw himself on the grenade."
This is hardly the first controversial case that Jones has tackled in his 30 years as a litigator. In 1970 he went to court to defend the principle of free speech when Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman was denied an opportunity to talk at Oklahoma State University. Such is Jones's appetite for attention that some critics believe he lobbied to get appointed to the McVeigh case, a charge he denies. But Jones, who has unsuccessfully run four times for public office in Oklahoma, admits to having a large ego. "I'm not a shrinking violet," he says. "Sometimes I trip over my own lip."
In one celebrated incident a decade ago, McNaughton, then opposing Jones in a medical malpractice case, became so enraged at the verbal potshots his former partner had taken in a brief that he blackened both Jones's eyes in a confrontation outside of court. Last December, Jones caused a stir when, before leaving for Denver, he took out an eloquent, dramatically phrased half-page ad in The Daily Oklahoman, thanking Enid for its support. Soon afterward a reporter disclosed that Jones had lifted much of the text from Lincoln's 1861 farewell address to the people of Springfield, Ill.
Yet even some of Jones's critics concede that his arrogance and aggressiveness help make him a highly effective trial lawyer. "I don't think there is anybody who has any better ability as far as courtroom tactics," says Norman Grey, an attorney and former mayor of Enid. "He'll give the government a run for its money." If so, it will be a spectacular achievement, given the amount of money involved. The cost of prosecuting McVeigh will be in the millions, and the tab for McVeigh's defense, also to be picked up by the taxpayer, is expected to be roughly the same, despite the fact that Jones is being paid $125 an hour, below what he says is his usual rate of $175.
Defending someone like McVeigh is an exercise, at least in part, of the idealism he learned growing up. Born in Lafayette, La., Jones was raised in Houston, the only child of schoolteacher Gladys Jones and her husband, Leslie, an oil industry sales manager who was often away on business but still left a deep imprint on his son. "I don't think I ever heard my father be judgmental of anyone," says Jones.
While attending the University of Texas, where he majored in English, he married his first wife, Virginia, with whom he had a son, John, in 1963. Before graduating from law school at the University of Oklahoma, he worked as a research assistant in New York City for Richard Nixon after he lost his first presidential bid. "He was very good to me," says Jones.
Later divorced, he married his second wife, Sherrel, in 1973 and went on to establish a thriving practice in Enid. One of his few regrets in accepting the McVeigh case is that it has disrupted his family life, taking him away from his 10,000-square-foot home—with its 20,000-volume library—on the outskirts of Enid. Along with John, 34 and a biologist, who volunteered to help, Jones has been living in Denver, while Sherrel has remained at home until May, when younger son Edward, 18, will graduate from high school. (Daughter Rachael, 21, attends college in Missouri; Stephen, 31, Sherrel's son from her first marriage, is an editorial assistant.)
Sherrel, 49, would have been happier if her husband had decided not to defend McVeigh. "I just worry about the physical and mental strain of it all," she says. The family is also concerned for Jones's safety, given the high emotions surrounding the case. But Jones, ever the contrarian, relishes the challenge. "You have to operate within the rules," he says, "but anything within the rules is fair game."
VICKIE BANE in Denver
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