With a promise from the judge that he is starting with a “clear page,” Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry Nichols went on trial Monday in the same courtroom where Timothy McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to die.
Nichols, 42, smiled and waved to his mother in the front row as he was escorted into the courtroom where the process of selecting 12 jurors and six alternates began.
Prosecutors say Nichols was a supporting player in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil, acquiring fertilizer and other components, robbing a firearms dealer to finance the attack and helping McVeigh build the bomb. They also say Nichols helped McVeigh stash the getaway car in Oklahoma City three days before the blast.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch noted there were many similarities to McVeigh’s trial, including identical charges that could bring the death penalty. But he added: “This is a different case. … It begins with a clear page.”
Nichols appeared for the first day of trial in an open-collar shirt, blue blazer and khaki pants.
In the courtroom and throughout the federal building, security was tight, with police making periodic patrols. Outside, the crowd was significantly smaller than the one at the opening of McVeigh’s trial. An hour before court began, there were four spectators in line, compared with about 50 for the McVeigh trial’s first day.
There was a smaller media contingent too, with many organizations sending smaller staffs.
The courtroom was only three-fourths full for the first day of jury selection; it was full when McVeigh’s trial opened.
For Charles Tomlin, who lost his grown son, Rick, in the bombing, the turnout was predictable. But he said the trial is no less significant.
“This trial is important because Nichols helped McVeigh,” Tomlin said. “I don’t see how they could find him any way but guilty.”
Attorneys questioned six prospective jurors Monday, dismissing one woman because she had a chronic back problem. They dismissed another after a doctor submitted a medical excuse. The process of selecting a jury from a pool of 500 is expected to take two weeks to a month.
Nichols’ attorneys also challenged an attempt by the government to dismiss another prospective juror who was a convicted felon, arguing that the unidentified person’s civil rights had been restored. Matsch agreed and ordered the prospective juror to report for questioning.
The first prospective juror was a nurse who spoke of her concern for family members in her native Idaho, where a series of bombings had been blamed on white supremacists. She tearfully said she could impose the death penalty.
The second, an unemployed dairy farmer, said Nichols should share the same fate as McVeigh if convicted.
“If he’s guilty like McVeigh, I feel he’s caused enough damage and should be put to death,” he said. “What got me the worst was there were so many children in it.”
The April 19, 1995, truck bombing blew apart the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds.