Amherst Magazine

After Timothy McVeigh

By Katherine Jamieson

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Joseph Hartzler '72

By the time he was named lead prosecutor for the Oklahoma City bombing case in 1995, Joseph Hartzler had become disheartened by the public image of prosecutors. “I was coming in on the coattails of O.J. Simpson,” he says. “There had been some high-profile cases that didn’t look dignified or effective.” Hartzler wanted to showcase the best attributes of the U.S. Department of Justice. Noticeably absent from the TV talk show circuit, he toned down the rhetoric: “I thought it was better for court cases to proceed in court.”

This attitude is reflective of Hartzler’s broader choices. In 1991 he and his wife stepped off the fast track, moving to central Illinois from Chicago, where he’d been a partner in a large law firm. His diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 1988 didn’t prevent him from serving for eight years on the local school board or coaching his sons’ sports teams. Hartzler was an assistant U.S. attorney in Springfield, Ill., when Attorney General Janet Reno selected him to prosecute Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building—an attack that killed 168 people. This put Hartzler back on the “ambition treadmill,” but he took the case, he says, because he thought he could make a difference.

Hartzler—who appeared in the magazine in 1999 and whose son Matt is an Amherst junior—remains satisfied with the jury’s conviction of McVeigh on 11 counts of murder and conspiracy. “People have expressed gratitude to me over the years,” Hartzler says. “I think the nation has a very good feeling that the case was handled well and justice achieved.” McVeigh, sentenced to death, was executed in 2001.

After Oklahoma City, Hartzler tried only three more cases, and he’s since turned to appellate work, which is “more cerebral, less stressful and tremendously gratifying,” he says. “There’s not the same level of adrenaline, but it’s much more efficient.” To him, being a federal prosecutor is far more interesting than working in a private practice. He says that having MS is also part of what’s kept him from running for office or pursuing more lucrative positions. “I was never good enough to play for the Chicago Cubs anyway,” Hartzler says, “and therefore I don’t worry about it.”

Photo by Rob Mattson