Nichols’ Bombing Trial Opens Both Sides Agree Second Suspect Wasn’t In Oklahoma City
Once again, the blast of the bomb that destroyed Oklahoma City’s federal building echoed through a Denver courtroom as Terry Nichols went on trial Monday in the second phase of the case.
In their opening statements, lawyers for the prosecution and defense argued over the significance of one key, undisputed fact: that at 9:02 a.m on April 19, 1995, the time of the explosion that killed 168 people, Nichols was home in Herington, Kan., four hours away.
Timothy McVeigh, convicted and sentenced to death for the bombing this past June, was the man who drove up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in a yellow Ryder truck packed with two tons of explosives that morning, defense attorney Michael Tigar told the sevenwoman, five-man jury.
“And Timothy McVeigh was not alone. With him in the cab of the truck were one or two other people,” Tigar said.
But that other man, he said, was not Nichols.
“Terry Nichols was building a life, not a bomb,” said Tigar - a phrase he repeated often during a nearly twohour opening statement that depicted Nichols as a hardworking family man and devoted father. “Terry Nichols was not there.”
“We’re here to gain respect for the undeniable fact that right now, Terry Nichols is presumed innocent, … that hundreds of reasonable doubts exist.”
Anticipating Tigar’s defense, lead prosecutor Larry Mackey, part of the team that helped convict McVeigh, began his own opening argument on the same note:
“On that morning, Terry Nichols was home … at a very safe distance from a truck bomb that exploded,” he said, “and Terry Nichols had planned it just that way.” Mackey led the jury through a chronology that began in September 1994, when McVeigh stayed at Nichols’ home in Kansas. The government alleges the plot began then.
Michael Fortier, who knew both Nichols and McVeigh in the Army and who testified in McVeigh’s trial, told authorities McVeigh wrote him a letter then saying, “Terry and I have decided to take offensive action against the government.”
Prosecutors contend McVeigh and Nichols decided to bomb the federal building in revenge for the deadly 1993 government raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. The Murrah building was bombed on the second anniversary of the Waco disaster.
“This is a case about two men who conspired to murder innocent people. Their plan succeeded. The bomb went off, and people died,” Mackey said.
Nichols, 42, sat soldier-straight at the defense table, gazing without expression at the jury - as his Army buddy McVeigh had done before him. Although this is Nichols’ trial, in some ways Monday, it seemed as though Timothy McVeigh were sitting there with him.
Prosecutors will try to link the two men in several ways. One link is a phone call the Sunday before the bombing. The prosecution alleges the two stashed a getaway car near the Murrah building that day.
In addition, prosecutors will present physical evidence found in Nichols’ home when the FBI searched it a few days after the bombing.
That includes a receipt for fertilizer with McVeigh’s fingerprint on it; a drill allegedly used in a burglary of explosives from a nearby quarry; blasting caps from that burglary; and plastic 55-gallon drums - the same kind allegedly used to hold the explosives in the back of the Ryder truck.
Prosecutors also will put victims of the bombing on the stand, just as in McVeigh’s trial, when the government interspersed dry, technical testimony on things such as the telephone records, with that of survivors or victims’ relatives, who spoke in wrenching detail of their injuries and losses.
Nichols’ attorneys have fought vigorously to limit such testimony, claiming it unfairly prejudices the jury.
Monday, the prosecution’s first two witnesses might have initially eased defense concerns. Both men worked at the Regency Towers apartment building, a block from the Murrah building, and testified about images on a security videotape, that showed the Ryder truck passing the Regency shortly before the bombing.
But the third witness, Cynthia Klaver, a lawyer for Oklahoma’s Water Resources Board, whose building was across the street from the federal building, gave jurors at hint at some of the testimony to come.
Klaver was conducting a hearing in her building that began at 9 a.m. The hearing was taped, and the first couple of minutes on the tape features her voice explaining of proceedings. Then, listeners heard a crashing noise that went on and on. Then, Klaver’s voice screaming for people to get out.
Jurors stiffened in their seats.
A half-hour later, after court had recessed for the day, a shaken Rudy Guzman, whose brother, Randy, died in the Murrah building, said the sound of the blast still upsets him.
“I wasn’t there, but it felt like I was,” he said. And then, recalling how he’d sat through every day of McVeigh’s three-month trial, he added, “all over again.”