Former federal prosecutor Larry Mackey helped put Timothy McVeigh behind bars—and now represents clients on the other side of the courtroom.
Now in his 40th year of practicing law, Barnes & Thornburg’s Larry Mackey still remembers the case that started it all. Really started it all—in high school. Serving as the plaintiff’s lawyer for a mock trial conducted in the historic Vanderburgh County Courthouse, Mackey laid out his case with passion and wit.
“I won,” he says with a chuckle, “and the jury gave me a dollar in damages. You can see how impressed they were.”
He adds a footnote: “It helped that my girlfriend was on the jury.”
His classmates may not have recognized the caliber of prosecutor standing before them, but Mackey would go on to develop his formidable talents and become legendary for his thoroughness and skill. When one of the most infamous criminal trials in American history concluded testimony, it was Mackey who gave the closing arguments on behalf of the United States. Timothy McVeigh, the man who killed 168 people when he destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a homemade bomb, stood accused, refusing to admit guilt, and the members of the jury awaited their mandate from the prosecution.
Mackey gazed directly into their eyes.
“I talked about how this ghastly crime had been committed, the awful explosion, all leading to the question, Who could do such a thing?” Mackey says. “That question had rippled back and forth across the country but had come to rest in that courtroom, and the answer would be given by that jury. All the pundits could sit down, because both the duty and the power to answer that question was now in the hands of the people.”
That powerful, crystalline moment did not seem preordained for Mackey as he was growing up in Evansville as one of six children. “My father had a fifth-grade education and my mother never had a driver’s license or a high school diploma,” he says. “I was the only child to go to college, let alone law school, so everything I have I’m grateful for and always will be.”
His path to fame came through a stroke of real fortune: “I had an older half brother who was the caddy master at the Evansville golf course,” Mackey says. “He told me, ‘Larry Allen, get out here and work your butt off—you can make some money.’”
He did make a little—three bucks for four hours’ work, most often—but the big payoff was longer-term: “I caddied for business leaders and a number of well-regarded lawyers, and from day one, they encouraged me to think about the profession,” Mackey says.
And how would he pay for college given his family’s circumstances? With a caddying scholarship. Mackey received the Evans Scholarship, named for Illinois amateur golfer Chick Evans and awarded based on academic excellence, character, and years of hard work as a caddy. It helped pay his way through the University of Evansville and allowed him to pursue his dream of law school at IU Bloomington.
Mackey was drawn to criminal law and began his career doing public defense work for the state of Illinois, moving up to work for the state’s attorney general, and eventually applying for and winning a federal prosecutor’s position for the Central District of Illinois.
By April 19, 1995, when McVeigh’s truck full of explosives detonated in downtown Oklahoma City, Mackey had been a federal prosecutor for 15 years. When the Department of Justice sent out a teletype asking for assistance prosecuting the perpetrators, Mackey could not help but throw his hat in the ring.
It was a nationally significant case, a landmark case, but a simple case it was not. McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, were linked to the bombing through forensic evidence but had not confessed.
“None of us took guilt for granted,” Mackey says of the prosecutorial team, led by Joseph Hartzler. “We were all conditioned to understand that you’ve got to get 12 Americans to agree unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt.”
There were two major challenges facing the prosecution. The first was the immensity and complexity of the crime scene, which extended not just the length of the sixteen-block blast site, but across the country as prosecutors tried to trace McVeigh’s and Nichols’ steps in the seven months leading up to the bombing. Countless hours of detective work went into constructing an airtight case.
“We were doing all-nighters,” Mackey says. “That was the level of intensity—just nonstop factual developments, new questions, new challenges. And a lot of credit goes to all of law enforcement. Not just the FBI, but all the state and county and city law enforcement officials who worked together to bring the evidence necessary for the jury to convict.”
But the second challenge was even tougher: the emotional toll.
“My first trip to Oklahoma City, I went downtown to the bomb site,” Mackey says. “One of the clerks in the federal court’s office across the street from the Murrah building had lost a daughter who would just have been turning one. We went to the bomb site with the clerk and did a birthday balloon launch and sang ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider.’
“The hardest part for me and many of the other prosecutors,” he continues, “was being able to both connect, and, at times, disconnect from the absolutely overwhelming emotional strain that was on every participant in this case.”
Mackey particularly praises the group of families who lost loved ones and still gave everything they had to see McVeigh prosecuted successfully. “For the sake of the case, they worked with us to communicate the horrible human toll that McVeigh and Nichols had exacted, without the trial becoming overwhelmingly a story about the victims,” he says. “We took two months for the evidence against McVeigh but only three days for victim impact statements. Those three days, everybody will tell you, were longer than the months that preceded them. There was just tremendous—as you can imagine—human cost. To see brave people, nervous people, scared people get on the stand and try to tell a roomful of strangers what it was like to lose their mom overnight, or their dad, or their baby, or their brother or sister. . . .”
It was critical that the prosecution stay sharply focused through this tidal wave of feeling. “We understood how important the outcome of the case would be for all of America,” Mackey says. “That was the attitude we brought day in, day out.”
The jury took four days to sift through the evidence.
“We were beginning to get worried,” Mackey says. “But you’re born to worry if you’re a lawyer.”
The conviction finally came on June 2, 1997. “We came out of the federal courthouse in downtown Denver and the sidewalks were absolutely full,” Mackey remembers. “Traffic had come to a stop. People were out of their cars. Windows were open in buildings all around the plaza. People were leaning out and they just erupted into applause. It was tremendously gratifying.”
After McVeigh’s trial concluded, Attorney General Janet Reno asked Mackey personally to stay on and try Terry Nichols as well. Despite the overwhelming exhaustion he felt after wrapping up the McVeigh case, Mackey didn’t hesitate to accept. He knew he was up to the challenge.
“Part of the reason I took on a certain role in the McVeigh case is that I excel at organizing teams and their missions,” he says. “I’m good at large projects that involve a lot of people—making sure your battalions are staying on course. Many of my colleagues would call me the taskmaster.”
Retired federal judge John Daniel Tinder, a longtime colleague of Mackey’s, points out that Mackey might be tough, but he would never ask something of someone else that he wouldn’t ask of himself “several times over.”
“What Larry has in abundance is a tremendous work ethic,” Tinder says. “He is a fierce advocate for his clients. Even when his opponents have more flourish or more style, no one ever outworks Larry Mackey. If I ever needed a litigator, he’s the one I’d want, and if I were going up against him, he’d be my most feared enemy. I have been privileged to see some of the great lawyers of our era, and Larry is definitely in that pantheon.”
Terry Nichols was finally convicted of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter charges on Christmas Eve 1997. (Nichols is now serving a life sentence without parole in a Colorado federal prison, and McVeigh was executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute in June 2001.)
In 1998, Mackey decided to retire his federal prosecutor’s hat and go into private practice. He joined Barnes & Thornburg to focus on complex litigation and the defense of individuals accused of white-collar crimes, which is the heart of his practice today. (Outside of work, he’s most passionate about his family: he has two grown adult sons and three stepsons with his wife, Sarah.)
Shifting to criminal defense was certainly an adjustment, Mackey says, but the move has given him a deeper appreciation for the positive contributions that come from all parties in a legal proceeding.
“Lawyers are an instrument in the search for the truth,” he says. “That’s the common denominator on both sides of the caption, prosecution or defense.”
The day he spoke to us for this article, he’d just hung up the phone with a client after delivering the good news that the client would not be charged with a crime. “He’s a man who’s lived an honest life and works hard, but was nonetheless under investigation,” Mackey says. “Here’s a man who hasn’t cried in many, many years, but who did so today.
“After McVeigh was convicted,” he continues, “it was the same thing: not a dry eye in the room.”
Mackey feels privileged to have been part of both experiences. “This is a human business, a human profession,” he says. “No matter the angle you approach it from, good people and their lives are at the center.”
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