Feds Lay Down For Rudolph

Serial bombing suspect Eric Rudolph is led to a police car after a hearing at a federal courthouse Tuesday, June 22, 2004, in Huntsville, Ala.
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com and CBS News.

If Eric Robert Rudolph weren't a cold-blooded murderer on the verge of spending the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary he'd make an excellent legal analyst. Amidst an ugly 11-page manifesto (think Timothy McVeigh meets Paul Hill meets the Unabomber) Rudolph cogently described why the feds cut him a sweetheart deal that spares him a possible death penalty.

The Justice Department chickened out, Rudolph surmised, because federal lawyers figured they never could get a unanimous jury in the South to recommend a death sentence for a man convicted of trying to stop the practice of abortion — even though he chose to do it by bombing a clinic and killing a cop (and by bombing the 1996 Olympics and killing an innocent bystander). "They were afraid," Rudolph boasted in his diatribe, "that in at least one jurisdiction they were going to run into this recalcitrant pro-life juror who would hang the jury and deliver a political defeat and embarrassment to Washington's efforts to make an example out of the person who assaulted their specially protected policy of child murder."

My view of why the feds backed down is not dissimilar — just a bit more diffuse. I'm not sure it's as much a "pro-life" juror that prosecutors were wary of in any of the potential Rudolph prosecutions. I think it was more a general concern about "anti-government" jurors who would have been (and who probably still are) both suspicious of federal authority and sympathetic toward Rudolph and his particular brand of politics. Rudolph, remember, was described as a modern-day "Robin Hood" during his years in the wild. He is a man who generated "Pray for Eric Rudolph" signs in North Carolina upon his capture. He is a man who created sentiments like the one expressed by Hoke Henson, quoted by The New York Times a few years ago as saying he didn't see Rudolph "bomb nobody ... You can't always trust the feds."

But whether it is a pro-life juror or an anti-government juror, the fact that the feds would back off this notorious terror case for fear of a possible jury holdout (or anything else, for that matter) is stunning. We have been told since Sept. 11, 2001 that the federal government would never waver, never falter, and never stop short of delivering to terrorists the justice they deserve. But now, suddenly, federal prosecutors aren't willing to trust an American jury in a case involving domestic terrorism involving hundreds of victims? Now, suddenly, the feds are afraid of taking a murder case to trial even when a law enforcement official (Robert Sanderson, an off-duty cop at the clinic in Birmingham) has been killed? Now, suddenly, we're afraid of putting a nasty, racist like Rudolph in the dock of justice because some people think he is a hero? Some people thought McVeigh was a hero, too, and look where he is now. Since when does our federal government go easy on a guy who murders in anti-government fervor?