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Oklahoma City bombing conspirator released

Did Michael Fortier serve enough time or was he released too early?

The star witness in the Oklahoma City bombing case was released from prison on Friday.  Michael Fortier knew specific details of the plot to the blow up the Murrah Federal Building months before the 1995 bombing, but did nothing to stop it.  After pleading guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges, he provided what prosecutors considered crucial testimony against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.

Former federal prosecutor Aitan Goelman who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing task force and Brian Hermanson, Terry Nichols' attorney at his murder trial in 2004 joined guest host Leslie Crocker Snyder of ‘The Abrams Report’ to discuss Fortier’s release. 

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

LESLIE CROCKER SNYDER, GUEST HOST, ‘THE ABRAMS REPORT’:  Aitan, we'll start with you.  Why was Michael Fortier such an important witness for the government?  What did he tell you? 

AITAN GOELMAN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  He was the only witness who told the inside story, Judge.  He knew about chapter and verse about the plot.  Tim McVeigh told both Michael Fortier and his wife, Lori, about what he and Terry Nichols were planning to do and Fortier was the only person who could actually give the narrative.  I mean the government had a lot of evidence at trial against both Nichols and McVeigh, but the other evidence didn't talk.  And so Michael Fortier told a compelling story and his testimony was really important.

SNYDER:  Well you know as well as I do how important it is to have a witness.  And so law enforcement makes deals all the time.  But is there something particularly offensive about this deal? 

Particularly offensive because so many people feel that he was so culpable that particularly Michael Fortier was so culpable?

GOELMAN:  Well I mean there is a difference between moral culpability and legal culpability.  This deal was actually a very good deal for the government and by extension for the victims of the bombing.  When Michael Fortier made his deal, as you know Judge, most times cooperators decide to flip and plead guilty and testify when you have really strong evidence against them when they are caught on tape with the killer cocaine.  In this case we didn't have evidence tying Fortier to the bombing.  We had you know some evidence of gun running, evidence of other things but no evidence tying him directly to the plot.  So when he was subpoenaed as a witness to the grand jury and decided to come clean and tell the government everything that he knew about the plot, it was much more of a volitional decision on his part than it is in a lot of these cases. 

SNYDER:  Well let me bring Brian in here.  Now, your client probably could have been successfully prosecuted for conspiracy among other things I would imagine, so he got a pretty good deal, didn't he? 

What do you think of this deal?  That's what I should have asked you. 

BRIAN HERMANSON, TERRY NICHOLS' ATTORNEY (via phone):  It's interesting to note that they say they didn't have much evidence against Mr. Fortier, but indeed in his home they found ammonia nitrate.  They found explosives. 

SNYDER:  So do you think he got too good a deal? 

HERMANSON:  Well I mean they had to make a deal with someone to testify and he was the first person to say that he would say something, even though they had wiretaps in his home showing that he said he would lie.

SNYDER:  Well, but they are certainly not going to make a deal with your client, right? 

HERMANSON:  Well again, if you look at the history of Mr. Fortier and what he did in this case according to his own statements, he was involved in explosives.  He was involved in moving stolen weapons.  He helped transport explosives.  He scoped out the Oklahoma City bombing site several months before the bombing.  He knew the day and the time, so...

SNYDER:  ... as Aitan just pointed out, the government doesn't make deals with innocent people.  I mean they have to take someone who's culpable of something.  That's the only reason they're going to flip, right?  And so wouldn't you agree that a deal would never have been made with your client.  Fortier was the natural person.

HERMANSON:  With the government's mindset on the case they would not make a deal with my client, but I think if you look side by side at what they said my client did and what they said Mr. Fortier did do find that they are very similar.  In fact, several months leading up to the bombing that's where Mr. McVeigh lived, was with Mr. Fortier. 

SNYDER:  Right.  Do you think it was a fair deal, Aitan?

GOELMAN:  I do think it was a fair deal.  I think it was an extremely fair deal.  And I think that Mr. Hermanson is dead wrong when he says that there's any comparison between Michael Fortier's action with regard to the bombing and Terry Nichols.  Terry Nichols is the one who along with McVeigh was there side by side in the fall before the bombing and acquired the components that they needed to make the truck bomb.

And Terry Nichols was the one the day before the bombing helped Tim McVeigh mix the truck bomb that ended up murdering 168 people in Oklahoma City.  It's true that Tim McVeigh stayed with Michael Fortier and it's true that Tim McVeigh told Michael Fortier about the plot. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.