Rob Nigh was living in Nebraska in 1995 when he got a phone call from Stephen Jones.
A few years earlier, Jones had given Nigh his first job out of law school and his first criminal jury trial.
The defendant in that first case was charged with 17 counts of child sexual deviancy. The verdict, read at 2 a.m., was not guilty on all counts.
Now Jones was looking for help with another case.
“Stephen called me and asked me to assist in the defense of Timothy McVeigh, and I said ‘no,’ ” Nigh recalled during a recent interview.
McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran, was accused of parking a Ryder rental truck loaded with fertilizer, diesel fuel and other chemicals in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and walking away.
The massive explosion he detonated with a timed fuse on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people, including 19 children.
Nigh had moved from Oklahoma to Nebraska to lead the local federal public defender’s office. He was 36 years old, a husband and a father. Life was pretty good.
Then the phone rang.
“I knew it would be life-changing experience,” Nigh said of his initial decision to decline the McVeigh case. “I had two little boys. I knew I would have to move. We would be uprooting.”
He changed his mind after talking it over with his then-wife.
“She said to me, something to the effect of, ‘Are you a defense attorney, or not?’”
Nigh, now 55, laughed quietly as recounted the conversation.
“I said: ‘I guess I am.’”
Overtaken By A New Job
Nigh may be best known for his high-profile clients, including McVeigh and Good Friday shooter Jake England. Now, he’s representing Michael Bever, the 16-year-old accused along with his older brother, Robert, of slaying five members of their family last month in Broken Arrow.
But measuring him by his newspaper clippings alone gives short shrift to his career – and to the man.
From his first job in Enid with Jones, to stops at the Tulsa County and federal public defender’s offices, to the Brewster & De Angelis law firm, where he’s spent the last 15 years, Nigh has done more fighting for little guys than he has for big shots. And often, he’s done it for free.
Former law partner Clark Brewster estimates that as many as half of the criminal cases Nigh tried for his firm were pro-bono.
“I can tell you, if we had a case and Rob is working on it, it wouldn’t make a difference if it was pro-bono or the man has unlimited funds, the effort would be the same,” Brewster said. “He absolutely cares, you can tell, down to his marrow.”
He must. Nigh walked away from his lucrative private practice in March to return to the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, where he is the chief public defender.
He’s making approximately $130,000 a year, which is a sharp pay cut for a high-profile defense attorney with his record.
“The most important thing to me about a job or work or a career is getting up in the morning and being excited about what you do and looking forward to work and being happy with what the day ahead looks like,” Nigh said. “I have that here … in the same way I had it in a law firm, but in a slightly larger degree.”
When the job came open last year, District Judge William Musseman heard from several excellent attorneys who were interested in the position.
But none could match Nigh.
“There was just no doubt in my mind that he would be a great leader for the Public Defender’s Office,” Musseman said. “He has in my mind the professionalism and the maturity to be a calming leadership voice.”
That was exactly what the office needed. After long-time Chief Public Defender Pete Silva retired in 2012, he was succeeded by Jack Zanerhaft, who was there 20 months.
“It was my perception that there was a need for stability,” Nigh said.
He initially took the job on an interim basis late last year. In March, he agreed to come on full-time.
“When I got here and started doing the work, meeting with the attorneys, the interns, the clerks, the paralegals and the secretaries and saw their commitment to making this office a very effective office, I kind of became overtaken by it,” Nigh said.
Making the DA’s Office Better
He’s got his work cut out for him. By any fair measure, attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office are overworked and underpaid.
Approximately 60 percent of the people facing felony charges in Tulsa County are represented by a public defender. Last year, that amounted to more than 10,000 cases.
Yet Nigh has a staff of just 40 attorneys. The starting salary for a public defender is $42,500, and Nigh acknowledges that a few of his attorneys have to work second jobs to make ends meet.
“I would like to have 20 more lawyers,” he said. “But it’s just not realistic.”
So he’s doing the next-best thing – maximizing what he does have. One of the first things he did upon taking over was to create a policy and procedures manual for his attorneys. It includes a priorities list. On the top of the list is “effective communication with and representation of the client,” Nigh said.
“Our clients are indigent and in many instances — if not in most instances — they have never had a voice, they have never had an advocate that stood up for their position,” he added. “There are many instances when they are surprised by the fact that someone takes an interest in them and in their situation and in their case.”
Nigh’s interest — beyond providing each client with top-notch representation — is to make systematic changes to the criminal justice system. It’s something he couldn’t do as a partner in a prestigious private law firm. It’s why he plans to stick around at his new job for a while.
“This (job) allows me to take part in meetings and it allows me to have input on how some legal proceedings are conducted in the county … to try to be part of the solution to some of the problems that everyone agrees exists, in ways that I can’t do in private practice,” he said.
His top priorities include getting inmates with mental health issues out of jail and into treatment. He also wants more resources directed to the juvenile court system.
“I think in a lot of instances, it (juvenile court) makes the difference between whether or not they go on to become a successful, happy, healthy, contributor to society or are charged (one day) with capital crimes,” Nigh said.
Brewster believes his friend will do a great job.
“We love him,” Brewster said. “I think they (the Public Defender’s Office) are going to be thrilled with not only his leadership but his experience and his ability to teach younger lawyers and take on the most difficult-to-defend population.”
Nigh spent his childhood in Enid, hunting and fishing and roaming the family’s property with his three sisters and his friends, looking for trouble.
His father, Robert, was an economist and entrepreneur. Helen, his mom, was a homemaker and artist.
It was a loving home. Nigh’s father taught him how to hunt and fish, and his mother showered him with unconditional love and a passion for art.
Nigh played tennis and baseball and soccer OK, but he was never the star. Not on the ballfield, anyway.
It was in the classroom and on the debate team and in whatever position of leadership he found himself in that young Rob Nigh made a name for himself.
“He is a natural leader,” said his oldest sister, Stephanie Hendricks.
“Throughout his school years — I mean all the way back — he was always getting academic awards and being elected class president.”
He decided to become a defense attorney his junior year of high school. It was 1977, and the debate team’s topic was whether the United States should implement a comprehensive reform of the corrections system.
Nigh did some research on prison and jail conditions — a lot of research, actually — and was horrified by what he found.
“I kind of decided that if I could be involved in a profession that kept people out of prisons and jails, or minimized their time there, or prevented the death penalty, that would be a good occupation,” he said.
And so it has. Nigh is universally respected not only for his legal mind, his preparation and his work ethic, but his integrity.
“He is just one of those people that when you talk to him you know there is no possible way he can tell you anything but the truth, and you would be correct in that conclusion,” Brewster said. “He is the epitome of the gentleman lawyer who knows the material better than anyone else in the courtroom. He is just an absolute giver of his time.”
Musseman, the district judge, faced off against Nigh as a prosecutor. His honesty and integrity, Musseman said, are as impressive as his courtroom acumen.
“He has never tried to sell something or argued something that is not grounded in fact or in the law,” Musseman said.
Make no mistake, Nigh likes a good fight. That came from his father.
Robert Nigh taught at Phillips University in Enid and started several business, including one that sold technology and equipment for water wells to developing countries in the Middle East.
“He was a nonconformist,” Nigh said of his father. “He held the opinion that just because it’s the system doesn’t mean that it’s correct, and just because it’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean that it is right.”
From his mother came an unfailing sense of right and wrong.
“She has a tremendous amount of compassion,” Nigh said.
To this day, thanks to his mom, Nigh breaks out the brushes and water colors from time to time and paints. He’s been doing it since junior high school.
“I think I picked it up from her,” Nigh said. “It is a good way to relax. It’s something you can do that gives you instant gratification.”
Life, Death and Timothy McVeigh
Timothy McVeigh was put to death at 7:14 a.m. June, 11, 2001, in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
Nigh watched him die from the witness chamber, just 20 feet away.
After the execution, he issued a statement that read in part:
“What we did this morning was to kill Tim McVeigh, friend to Bob Popovic, Allen Smith and Elizabeth McDermott. We killed Bill and Mickey’s son this morning. And we killed Jennifer McVeigh’s big brother.
“Of course, we can say that it was Tim himself that caused their pain.
“And we would be half-right. But it would be a lie to say that we did not double their pain and that we are not responsible, because there is a reasonable way to deal with crime that doesn’t involve killing another human being.”
The kid from Enid, it turned out, was indeed a defense attorney — even after his client’s death.
Fourteen years later, Nigh opposes capital punishment with the same fervor he did then.
“It is terrible to watch the government kill somebody that I had represented for so many years,” Nigh said, “particularly when I firmly believe that there is a reasonable alternative to capital punishment.”
He means life in prison without the possibility of parole. It’s cheaper, provides protection for the public and is not, in a sense, final.
That, from Nigh’s perspective, is the most important thing.
“I think the primary reason people should be opposed to the death penalty is we’ve proven that we have killed innocent people,” he said. “We are fallible. That’s the kind of mistake that is irreversible.”
According to Nigh, McVeigh was a polite, well-read, intelligent man who was proud of his service in the Army, but he understands why the man elicits hate in so many hearts.
“You are absolutely entitled to your opinion about him,” Nigh said. “The crime he was convicted of committing was atrocious beyond imagination.”
So how does he reconcile the man with the crime?
“You can hate the act without hating the man, and the legal system shouldn’t be based upon hatred,” he said. “I believe we do a disservice to the victims of crime when we tell them they will get closure.”
“When we make killing a part of the healing process, I think we return to barbarism.”
A Good Name Goes A Long Way
It’s been 20 years since Nigh said “yes” to representing Timothy McVeigh. He was right — doing so would change his life forever.
“I had the opportunity to work with some of the best lawyers in the country and several leading scholars in reference to death-penalty litigation,” Nigh says. “I got to litigate issues against the the best the government had to offer and won some of the battles, lost the war.”
Yet even with all of his professional success — Nigh says his career has exceeded his wildest expectations — there is still a bit of that little boy from Enid in him.
He still loves sports and the outdoors. He and his second wife, Holly Nigh, fish together and root for the Thunder and the Sooners. Nigh never gave up playing basketball – at least not in parking lot of the Brewster & De Angelis law firm, where he was a regular at the firm’s pick-up games.
As for his own boys, the little ones he was worried about all those years ago in Nebraska, they’re about grown up.
The oldest is headed to medical school in the fall and the other is unsure of what the future holds — but it won’t include a career as a criminal defense attorney.
“This work, it can be emotionally draining and physically taxing and it can turn your hair from a nice shade of brown to an even shade of white,” Nigh said. “Hopefully, they’ll both be doctors.”
Nigh, of course, will stick with the law.
His motivation, he says, is to assist people “who are in the most serious need of help and accomplishing a good result for them that might permit them to have a healthy, happy, successful life.”
He’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that in his role as Tulsa County’s lead public defender. And don’t think being Rob Nigh won’t help. Even the self-effacing Nigh acknowledges as much — sort of.
“I think that your reputation plays a role in your effectiveness. If you play by the rules and treat people with respect no matter who they are, if makes a difference,” Nigh said.