Mixed Verdict In Bomb Trial Jury Finds Nichols Guilty Of Conspiracy And Manslaughter, But Not Murder
Terry Nichols was convicted Tuesday of helping to plan the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history, the bombing of a federal office building that left 168 people dead, including 19 children.
But the jury stopped short of convicting Nichols of murder, settling on eight counts of involuntary manslaughter - saying, in effect, that Nichols didn’t deliberately kill anyone.
The federal jury of seven women and five men took 41 hours over six days to decide that Nichols had conspired with his Army buddy Timothy J. McVeigh to use a weapon of mass destruction in the April 19, 1995, attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
But by rejecting the first-degree murder charges in the deaths of eight law enforcement officials, the panel also concluded that Nichols had not intentionally meant to murder the people inside.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Diane Leonard, whose husband, Donald, a Secret Service agent, was one of the eight federal law enforcement officers killed.
Said Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter in the blast: “He conspired to build the bomb. What the hell did they think he was going to do with it?”
McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death in June on all 11 counts of conspiracy and first-degree murder in the bombing.
Tuesday, two female jurors, as well as several relatives of victims, wept as the verdicts were read. Nichols never took his eyes off of U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch as he read the 11 conspiracy and murder counts, followed by the verdicts. Nichols’ mother, father, brother and sister sat somberly in the front row.
“It ain’t over,” said his brother James as he left the courtroom.
Although the verdict was seen as a partial victory for the defense, which had vigorously challenged every aspect of the government’s circumstantial case, Nichols could still face the death penalty on the conspiracy charge. As it stands now, the guilty verdict on the conspiracy count calls for this same jury to decide whether Nichols should be sentenced to death or whether he should spend the rest of his life in jail. They can also opt to hand the responsibility back to the judge for a lesser sentence. Each manslaughter charge carries a maximum of six years. The penalty phase begins Monday.
Nichols’ chief attorney, Michael Tigar, immediately served notice in court that he planned to challenge whether the prosecution can still call for a death penalty when Nichols was not convicted of first-degree murder. He was granted a hearing for Wednesday.
“I think the verdict speaks for itself,” said Tigar.
Minutes after the verdict, prosecutor Larry Mackey said, “The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict in its entirety. We are prepared to go forward.”
Legal observers predicted that the mixed verdict will bode well for Nichols in the penalty phase because it indicated that the jurors view his role as substantially different than McVeigh’s.
“I would be very surprised if the jury sentenced Nichols to death,” said Andrew Cohen, a Denver attorney who has monitored both trials. “They distinguished in their own minds what both men did.”
Under federal law Nichols and McVeigh could only be charged with the murders of eight law enforcement officials who died in the line of duty: Secret Service agents Mickey Maroney, Donald Leonard, Alan Whicher and Cynthia Campbell-Brown; DEA agent Kenneth McCullough; Customs Service agent Paul Ice and Claude Madearis; and Paul Broxterman, an agent in the office of Inspector General at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The verdict comes 32 months after McVeigh, a decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, calmly parked his rented truck in front of the Murrah building within sight of the day-care center on the second floor and lit a fuse leading to two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and racing fuel. Moments later the massive explosion virtually destroyed the building and forever shattered a nation’s confidence that terrorism is something that happens elsewhere.
Within hours of the blast, the country focused its wrath on unknown international terrorists. But all too soon it became apparent that these terrorists were home grown. McVeigh was arrested less than 90 minutes after the blast 75 miles away during a routine traffic stop. He was the prime suspect almost immediately. Through the Nicholses’ family address in Decker, Mich., which McVeigh routinely used on forms and applications, the FBI zeroed in on Terry Nichols within two days of the bombing.
On April 21, 1995, Nichols, toting his then-toddler, Nichole, turned himself in at the Herington, Kan., police station, asking the local authorities why he was hearing his name on the news in connection with the crime. He never went home again, first held as a material witness and eventually charged as a co-conspirator.
But proving his guilt would end up a greater challenge for the federal government than it had been in the McVeigh case. There was no evidence that Nichols had rented the Ryder truck used to carry the bomb to Oklahoma City, and there was no one who could positively identify him as the purchaser of two tons of ammonium nitrate, the major component in the bomb.
Most problematic for the government was the compelling fact that Nichols was at home in Kansas when McVeigh detonated the truck in front of the Murrah building at the promising start of a sunny workday.
Presenting nearly 100 witnesses in four weeks, prosecutors traced an intricate web of circumstantial evidence tying Nichols to McVeigh. In often tedious detail, the government sought to show that Nichols knew exactly what McVeigh was up to, that the men were in constant phone communication, that together they bought or sold ingredients for their homemade bomb, secreted them in several storage lockers rented under aliases, and then assembled them at a state fishing park in rural Kansas.
The government also sought to show that Nichols shared McVeigh’s intense hatred for the federal government, and bombed the building to avenge the government’s assault on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas, two years to the day before the bombing.
A Kansas rancher for whom Nichols worked told the jury that Nichols once said that “the government needed to be overthrown.”
Tim Donahue testified Nichols had complained that the federal government had gotten “too big and too powerful,” particularly with respect Waco. “He talked about … (how) they had raided the compound and killed innocent people,” said Donahue.
With a Wal-Mart receipt for a $2.54 oil filter bearing both men’s fingerprints, the government showed that McVeigh and Nichols were together on April 14 or 15 - despite Nichols’s claims to the contrary.
Defense lawyers countered by aggressively claiming that the government had tailored evidence to fit its theory of the crime, and accused the government of trying to convict Nichols of “guilt by association.” In order to blunt the impact of anti-government materials found in box in Nichols’s home, Tigar showed that McVeigh disbursed hate literature to many others. And in a small victory for the defense, Matsch agreed to instruct the jurors that “expressions of sympathy and support for those who commit unlawful acts do not, without more, constitute entry into an unlawful agreement.”
Seeking to sow doubt with the jury, Tigar presented a parade of witnesses who reported seeing multiple Ryder trucks in midKansas in April and seeing short, swarthy men with McVeigh - men who vaguely resembled one-time suspect John Doe No. 2, who was never identified and never found.
But in the end, the defense’s biggest mistake may prove to have been its decision to put on the stand Nichols’s wife Marife, who virtually became a prosecution witness. Nichols 24-year-old Filipino mail-order bride portrayed their marriage as distant, said that they had spent a considerable amount of time apart as she took extended trips back to the Philippines, and confirmed that Nichols and McVeigh were best friends.
Marife Nichols was also unable to provide her husband with an alibi on the day for which he desperately needed one - April 18 - when the government alleges he helped McVeigh assemble the bomb at a state park near his home in Herington.