Witness after witness described the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing Monday as prosecutors tried to get across the enormity of the crime and convince a skeptical jury that Terry Nichols is as deserving of the death penalty as Timothy McVeigh.
“We present this evidence to you not to evoke your sympathy,” prosecutor Patrick Ryan told them. “These victims in Oklahoma City have had all the sympathy they can stand in the last 2-1/2 years.
“We present this evidence so you will be informed, so you will have all the facts. … We want you to make this sentencing decision on the cold hard facts of what happened.”
A jury last week convicted Nichols, 42, of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter, not murder, concluding he did not set out to kill anyone. The 29-year-old McVeigh, in contrast, was convicted on all 11 murder and conspiracy charges and sentenced to death.
Given the split verdict against Nichols, legal experts said it is extremely unlikely the jury will give him the death penalty, no matter how graphic the testimony about the 168 dead and more than 500 injured in the April 19, 1995, blast.
At least four jurors wept as a retiree told of living “in a vacuum” since his wife was killed; a woman said she had an emptiness inside since her 18-month-old boy died; and a rescue worker fought back tears as he recalled walking out of the rubble with the body of a boy in his arms.
“His head was gone from his chin to the back of his head,” said Oklahoma City police officer Jerry Flowers.
Flowers described his frantic efforts to dig his way into the cratered federal building to try to rescue people as sparks flew from downed electrical wires and water began to rise as high as his boots.
As he dug, Flowers said he heard faint voices calling, “Help me help me.”
At one point, Flowers was digging through the debris that once was the day-care center when he found a baby’s foot covered with a pink sock. With help from others, he pulled out the body of a girl wearing a pink dress.
The conspiracy conviction is the only one punishable by death. The jury will have to decide whether Nichols should die by injection, serve life in prison without parole or receive a lesser sentence to be determined by U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch. Matsch is bound by the jury’s decision.
Defense attorney Michael Tigar promised to show jurors Nichols wasn’t the kind of person who intended to kill and to give them a glimpse into the life Nichols led before his arrest.
Nichols turned red as Tigar described how Nichols was unable to touch his children while he was in prison. Tigar said Nichols fashioned cards for his family from colored toothpaste because he has been denied sharp objects, including pencils.
“We will present evidence that Mr. Nichols’ participation in the offense was relatively minor,” Tigar said. “We’re going to present a picture of Terry Nichols as a human being. … The death penalty in this case is not a reasoned moral response with what the evidence shows.”
Taking the stand for the government, Laura Sue Kennedy wept quietly as she recalled waiting three days before learning her 18-month-old son had died. “Blake meant everything to me,” she said. “He was such a special little boy and he was such an important part of our family.
“When he died, it took a part of me. I have an emptiness inside me that’s there all the time. I’m always thinking about him.”
Roy Sells told the jurors how he met his wife, Leora Lee, on a blind date and she became his best friend. For the next 37 years, they were virtually inseparable, sharing every aspect of their life, including volunteer jobs at church.
“When you first met her, you could tell God was first in her life; family was second. She was very dedicated to those roles,” he said. “When they found her 10 days later (after the bombing), that’s when my life ended.”
Both Sells and Mrs. Kennedy said they have unanswered questions about the bombing, but primarily wanted to know why it had occurred.
“That question hasn’t been answered yet,” Sells said.