TO A PUBLIC AGHAST AT RECENT COURTROOM circuses, U.S. Attorney Joseph Hartzler showed what a prosecutor should do. Without grandstanding, without publicly knocking heads with defense lawyers, without even one appearance on Larry King Live, Hartzler won a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Timothy McVeigh in last spring’s Oklahoma City bombing trial. And he did it in just 23 days. “Joe made it clear from the start that this is not about us, the lawyers, getting famous,” says prosecution team member Aitan Goelman. “This is about the victims.” That pretty much defines Hartzler’s winning strategy: keeping jurors focused on the 168 deceased and on their families, who came to see Hartzler as both friend and advocate. “All the family members felt he was approachable, that they weren’t on the outside looking in,” says Marsha Kight, whose 23-year-old daughter died in the bombing.
For Hartzler, 47, a Springfield, Ill., resident who volunteered for the job, the trial was also about showing that the justice system works. “I wanted to bring dignity to the process,” he says. Such straightforward idealism is characteristic of Hartzler, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized scooter to navigate courtrooms, as well as to coach the baseball and flag-football teams of his three sons, ages 13, 10 and 6. (Diagnosed in 1988, he is quick to correct those he thinks make too much of his disability. “I do have multiple sclerosis,” he wrote in a June letter to Newsweek, “but I do not ‘suffer’ from it.”) Chicago attorney Jim Ferguson, a longtime friend, calls him “an authentic American hero—someone who is completely devoted to family, community and church and willing to make so many sacrifices for the good of everyone else.”
Being away from home for two years to prepare the case was an especially painful sacrifice, and Hartzler has declined to help prosecute second accused bomber Terry Nichols. Today he is happily back in his brick split-level, playing board games with his boys. He still loves prosecuting fraud cases in the Springfield U.S. attorney’s office. Says wife Lisa, 44, a homemaker: “Nothing fills him with more pride than at the beginning of a case saying, ‘My name is Joe Hartzler, and I represent the United States of America.’ ”