Terry Lynn Nichols escaped a sentence of death Wednesday in the Oklahoma City bombing when a federal jury here deadlocked because many jurors believed that prosecutors had presented “sloppy evidence” in the trial and the FBI’s investigation of the blast was “arrogant.”
The jury impasse means that Judge Richard P. Matsch must determine whether the 42-year-old Nichols should spend the rest of his life in prison with no hope of release or be given a shorter, fixed number of years behind bars. By law, he cannot impose the death penalty himself.
The abrupt turn of events brought sharp bursts of anger from many of the bomb victims who have prayed that Nichols, like co-defendant Timothy J. McVeigh, would pay with his life for the April 19, 1995, explosion that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.
Equally stunning was the revelation from the jury forewoman that at the outset of jury deliberations, “a fair number” of panel members believed Nichols was innocent.
“The government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Terry Nichols was involved,” said Niki Deutchman, embracing the belief held by many in the United States that others beyond Nichols and McVeigh helped carry out the bombing.
“I think there are other people out there, and decisions were probably made very early on (by the government) that Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols were who they were looking for. And the same sort of resources were not used to try to find out who else might be involved,” she told reporters.
The Oklahoma City bombing, the single worst act of terrorism committed on American soil - has for nearly three years spawned undying theories of a wider criminal conspiracy that reached as far as Europe and the Far East.
Nichols could still face a death penalty prosecution again if a state grand jury in Oklahoma indicts him and McVeigh on state murder charges.
“It’s not over yet,” District Attorney Bob Macy said Wednesday, standing near the Oklahoma City bomb site and promising to prosecute both men on state charges of capital murder.
“Hopefully,” he added, “we’ll have a different verdict to talk about.”
The clear victor Wednesday was Michael Tigar, one of the nation’s pre-eminent criminal defense lawyers, who was appointed to defend a man many believed would be quickly dispatched to a cell on death row.
Although the government presented overwhelming evidence against McVeigh, much of what it had against Nichols was circumstantial, and Tigar and his chief assistant, Ron Woods, exposed a series of inconsistencies that suggested that if Nichols had been involved with McVeigh, it was tangentially, at best.
Tigar, in his typically reticent way, spoke only briefly after leaving the federal courthouse, a grin sheepishly crossing his face. He said the judge gave the public an “object lesson” in the justice system by presiding over a fair trial, adding: “We’re pleased.”
Larry Mackey, the government’s chief prosecutor, also was terse.
“We, of course, regret the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision,” he said. “But we understand how difficult those deliberations must have been, and we are grateful to their service.”
The blast triggered the biggest manhunt in American history. Ultimately, only Nichols and McVeigh were charged in an 11-count federal indictment; their Army friend Michael Fortier became the government’s chief witness against McVeigh and Nichols in return for a prison sentence of 23 years or less.
In June, McVeigh was convicted on all counts. His jury recommended a death sentence, which Matsch imposed in August. McVeigh was seen as the bombing mastermind; he rented the truck in Kansas and drove it to Oklahoma City.
Tigar showed that Nichols stayed home in Herington, Kan., the morning of the blast. He told the jury that Nichols was trying to sever his relationship with McVeigh, and that even if his client had been involved briefly in the conspiracy, at one point he wanted out - a fact that came from Fortier’s testimony.
The government sought to prove that Nichols had a heavy hand in the conspiracy, but at key junctures its case seemed to falter.
The jury of seven women and five men found Nichols guilty Dec. 23 of conspiring with McVeigh in the bombing. But they acquitted him of actually using the truck bomb and destroying the building.
The panel also cleared him of first- and second-degree murder charges in the deaths of the eight federal law enforcement officers killed that morning, opting instead to find him guilty only of involuntary manslaughter.