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Sympathy for the Devil? Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen takes a look at those supporting suspected terrorist Eric Rudolph.

No one, so far as I know, ever publicly prayed for Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols after they were arrested for the Oklahoma City bombing. And certainly no one save a few lonely defense attorneys has come forward since the two sniper suspects were caught last fall to say that they deserve the presumption of innocence. But there are early suggestions that bombing suspect Eric Robert Rudolph already has elicited a measure of sympathy from a real-world jury of his peers.

The front page of Monday's New York Times has a photo of a restaurant sign in Peachtree, N.C., that says "Pray for Eric Rudolph." The story by Jeffrey Gettleman that accompanies the photo — "Sympathy for Bombing Suspect May Cloud Search for Evidence" — contains a quote from a man named Hoke Henson, who says he didn't see Rudolph "bomb nobody...You can't always trust the feds."

These sentiments, also expressed in other news outlets over the weekend, clearly are not universal in North Carolina, where Rudolph apparently has been hanging out these past few years, or in Alabama and Georgia, where the bombings took place. But the fact that they are present at all is a surprise.

This is an era in American justice, after all, when suspects often are convicted in the court of public opinion only hours after they are arrested; when talk show hosts talk about capital punishment before the first witness has testified at trial; and when prosecutors and politicians call convictions a "slam dunk" before the first shred of evidence has been offered in court. This is the post Sept. 11 era, when jurors don't want to hear excuses or explanations, they just want to see hard justice done and done quickly. So what is it about Eric Robert Rudolph that makes him different — in perception if not reality — than McVeigh or Nichols or Lee Boyd Malvo or John Allen Muhammad?

Surely not the crimes with which he has been charged. Rudolph is accused of murder as surely as were McVeigh and Nichols — using the same weapon, in fact — with only the toll differentiating their crimes. And Rudolph is accused of committing a continuing series of crimes as surely as are Malvo and Muhammad. The bombing victims in Birmingham and Atlanta are no less dead than are the victims in Oklahoma City. And the people who survived the bombings with which Rudolph has been charged were no less terrorized than were the people who lived through the sniper shootings in the D.C. area.

Can it be that Rudolph is white while Malvo and Muhammad are black? Surely not, right? After all, McVeigh and Nichols also are white and they certainly didn't have people like restaurant owner Betty Howard telling The New York Times that they needed "help" from regular citizens. Can it be that Rudolph's anti-government views have resonated down South? Surely not, right? McVeigh and Nichols shared similar if not identical views with Rudolph and they never got kudos from potential jurors.

Can it be that Rudolph's anti-abortion views have made the difference? Surely not, right? After all, Rudolph is charged with killing an off-duty police officer who had nothing to do with the abortion clinic he was guarding at the time. Is it the "Robin Hood" factor; the notion that Rudolph's ability to evade the feds all these years has rocketed him to a sort of legendary status among a group of people who have never been particularly impressed with centralized government? Who knows. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above. But whatever explains this curious trend-changer in pre-trial perceptions, it's not merely a philosophical question worth pondering in the abstract. It has practical ramifications for federal attorneys and the police as they transition from investigation to prosecution.

First, it affects whether and to what extent law enforcement officials can encourage Rudolph's former "neighbors" to come forward and offer information about where he has been and what he has been doing all these years. Whether Rudolph ever admits it or not, and whether he is ultimately convicted or not, it is fairly obvious that somebody or "some bodies" in and around his base of operations knew he was hiding there in the heat of a manhunt. Now those folks have a choice — to come forward and try to make a deal with prosecutors or to stay hidden and hope no one ever finds out. If prosecutors can figure out what is making these people so willing to hide and help a fugitive, perhaps the feds can, indeed, get them over to the government's side.

If we start seeing "deals" between the government and these sorts of witnesses, we'll know two things. We'll know that the federal government has figured out what makes people like Betty Howard and Hoke Henson tick and that prosecutors are worried enough about their case against Rudolph that they were willing to offer immunity in exchange for testimony. If we do not see these sorts of deals, we'll know either that the feds are happy with the state of their evidence or that they still don't get how or why some people seem to have embraced Rudolph.

The Rudolph as "Robin Hood" scenario also necessarily affects how prosecutors have to proceed at trial now that Attorney General John Ashcroft has decided that Rudolph will be tried first in Alabama and then in Georgia. The feds have to be very sensitive not to present a case that unduly politicizes the evidence against Rudolph while at the same time emphasizing how heinous his alleged crimes truly are. And the Justice Department has to hope that the judge in the case doesn't allow Rudolph, or his attorneys, to turn the defendant into a political prisoner, someone who tries to convince jurors that he has been persecuted, harassed and annoyed by the big bad government.

By Andrew Cohen

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