OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Supreme Court appointed a Comanche County judge to preside over bombing conspirator Terry Nichols' preliminary hearing, jump-starting a case that has languished in state courts for three years.
District Judge Charles Allen McCall, described by one attorney as a ``very experienced, no nonsense judge,'' was named on Tuesday to preside over the preliminary hearing that will determine whether Nichols will be tried for 160 counts of first-degree murder for the Oklahoma City bombing.
Nichols, convicted of federal involuntary manslaughter charges and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the bombing, faces the death penalty if found guilty on state charges.
``I am confident that Judge McCall possesses both the judicial experience and judicial temperament to preside over this high-profile matter,'' Chief Justice Joseph M. Watt said in making the announcement.
McCall, of Lawton, replaces District Judge Ray Dean Linder of Alva, who presided over the preliminary hearing for 27 months before he stepped down on Nov. 22, citing his judicial responsibilities and frustration with the slow pace of the case.
McCall said he will meet with prosecution and defense attorneys within the next 30 days to find a new preliminary hearing date, which Linder had set for Feb. 3.
``I realize the overwhelming public interest in this case, along with the public's right to know what goes on in their court system,'' McCall said in a prepared statement.
``However, the right of the defendant and the state to a fair preliminary hearing must prevail over anything else,'' McCall said.
McCall is a former assistant district attorney in Comanche and Cotton counties who was named a special judge in 1982. He became a district judge in 1994.
McCall's experience includes presiding over murder cases at both preliminary hearings and trials, said attorney John Zelbst of Lawton.
``He's a very experienced, no nonsense judge,'' Zelbst said. ``He's fair down to every bone in his body. Both sides will be treated fairly.''
Zelbst, past president of Oklahoma Trial Lawyers Association, said he has represented murder defendants in McCall's court.
``He hasn't always ruled the way I wanted him to, but he's always been right,'' Zelbst said. He said McCall brings ``a good commonsense approach to everything he does.''
Nichols' preliminary hearing has been set seven times since he was brought to Oklahoma in January 2000 from a federal penitentiary in Colorado. Legal arguments and other issues have delayed previous hearings.
Assistant District Attorney Sandra Howell-Elliott, Nichols' chief prosecutor, said her office will require four-to-six weeks to issue subpoenas and finalize travel arrangements for witnesses.
Prosecutors have said they plan to question 32 witnesses at the preliminary hearing, which officials have said could take weeks.
Nichols is charged in connection with the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The explosion killed 168 people, injured more than 500 and damaged or destroyed nearby buildings in one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil.
A federal jury convicted Nichols in 1997 of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of eight federal agents. The state case covers the other victims.
Nichols' trial judge, District Judge Steven W. Taylor of McAlester, was previously appointed by the Supreme Court.