Nichols Convicted of Manslaughter in Oklahoma Blast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In verdicts casting sharp doubts that Terry L. Nichols will be sentenced to die, a jury on Tuesday found him guilty of criminal conspiracy in the Oklahoma City bombing but convicted him only of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of the eight federal law enforcement agents killed in the 1995 explosion.

The jury, after deliberating more than 40 hours over six days, chose not to convict Nichols of first-degree and second-degree murder in the deaths. The jury also acquitted him of two separate charges of using a weapon of mass destruction--the truck bomb that exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building--and destruction by explosive.

Nichols, 42, could receive the death penalty for his conviction on the conspiracy count. But in its verdicts, the jury clearly rejected the government's effort to have Nichols considered an equal partner with Timothy J. McVeigh in the worst act of terrorism committed on U.S. soil.

McVeigh, who with Nichols shared a hatred of the government, six months ago was found guilty on all conspiracy and first-degree murder counts against him and was sentenced to death.

Nichols and several members of his family sat stoically in the courtroom as Tuesday's verdicts were read. His brother, James Nichols, vowed afterward that the legal battle on his behalf will continue.

"It ain't over," he said. "It ain't over."

Several of the jurors--male and female--were crying in court and could not look at the defendant.

The mixed outcome was greeted by many with dismay.

Inside the courtroom, some relatives of those killed in the blast cried and embraced--many of them shocked that Nichols might get a chance at life despite playing a part in the bombing.

Later, in front of the courthouse as darkness fell and a cold chill set in, several of the relatives lashed out at the jury and the federal judicial process.

"It was a slap in the face," said Diane Leonard, whose husband, Secret Service agent Donald Leonard, was one of those slain.

Jannie Coverdale, who lost two young grandsons inside the Murrah building's day-care center, blamed Judge Richard P. Matsch. "I'm angry, I'm very angry, I hurt," she said. "He never should have agreed with the defense to include manslaughter charges."

Under the instructions from Matsch, who also presided in the McVeigh trial, the jury was allowed to consider the lesser charges only if they were unable to find premeditation in the eight first-degree murder charges. Involuntary manslaughter, which alone carries no more than six years behind bars, was defined for the jury as "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice."

The jury in the McVeigh trial was not given a similar option.

Marsha Kight, whose daughter died in the bombing, criticized the jury. "He conspired to build the bomb," she said of Nichols. "What the hell did they think he was going to do with it?"

All told, 168 people were killed and more than 500 were injured in the April 19, 1995, blast that McVeigh and Nichols planned in retribution for a government assault on the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas. That incident, in which about 80 people perished, occurred exactly two years before the bombing of the Murrah building.

The federal cases against McVeigh and Nichols only charged them with first-degree murder of the eight law enforcement agents because, under federal law, the death penalty would apply only in those deaths.

Matsch ordered the penalty phase of Nichols' case, in which both sides will put on evidence and testimony to decide the appropriate sentence, to begin Monday.

After hearing both sides present evidence, the jury of seven women and five men must decide whether Nichols should die, serve life in prison with no parole or be given a specific term in prison, to be set by the judge.

Moments after the verdicts were in on the 11-count indictment, lead defense lawyer Michael E. Tigar rose and asked for a hearing this morning in which he plans to challenge the legality of going ahead with a sentencing phase when there is a mixed verdict.

Few observers expect him to prevail. And the judge, in dismissing the jury, told them to expect to return Monday.

"I cannot tell exactly the length of that [part of the] trial," Matsch told the jury. "But it will require your attention, patience and care. So your job is not done."

In Oklahoma City, Dist. Atty. Bob Macy stands poised to file 160 individual counts of murder under state law against Nichols--charges for which Oklahoma County will seek capital punishment--if he does not get the death penalty in this trial.

Macy joined others in expressing disappointment in the federal jury's decision.

"He's just as responsible for [the 168] deaths, in my opinion, as Tim McVeigh."

Added Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating: "I think that it's a terrible disappointment to the family members. This is a person who could have stopped all of this."

In Washington, President Clinton released a statement saying that while "no verdict in a court of law can ease the loss of a loved one . . . the successful prosecution of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols should offer a measure of comfort that all Americans stand with the families of Oklahoma City."

Lawyers on both sides of the Nichols case were cautious in their comments as they left the courthouse.

"The verdict speaks for itself," said Tigar, adding: "The process is not over."

Chief government prosecutor Larry Mackey said: "The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict in its entirety. And we're prepared to go forward in the penalty phase."

Even before the verdicts were reached, prosecutors were gearing up for a vigorous argument in the penalty phase. As each day wore on with no verdict, they began to express concern that some on the jury may be sympathetic to Nichols.

The prosecution team is planning to bring victims and rescue workers to Denver this weekend and to use their stories to remind the jurors of the bombing's horrors.

Prosecutors also brought in these so-called victim-impact witnesses in the sentencing phase for McVeigh. Many told tragic stories that reduced the jury and courtroom observers to tears. But this time, realizing that they must turn a divided jury around in their favor, prosecutors plan to intensify their efforts to convince the jury that Nichols' life must be forfeited because of the tremendous number of people who died in the blast.

How this will play out is uncertain, and the risk remains that too much victim testimony could desensitize the jury and encourage it to side with Nichols.

"This verdict certainly supports the theory that the government now faces an uphill battle to obtain the death penalty," said John Walsh, a Denver lawyer and legal analyst who has monitored both the Nichols and McVeigh trials.

"To the extent [prosecutors] have felt so strongly that the death penalty is appropriate here, they've got some yardage to make up. So in that sense, the defense has to be feeling good."

The trial began with jury selection on Sept. 29 and nearly 200 witnesses testified.

The evidence against Nichols suggested that he and McVeigh rented storage lockers and purchased ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in preparation for building the bomb. In addition, numerous items stolen from an Arkansas horse farmer to pay for the bomb ingredients were found in Nichols' Kansas home.

Furthermore, a video camera caught Nichols' pickup truck in Oklahoma City at the time that McVeigh was leaving his getaway car near the Murrah building.

But there was no direct link that placed Nichols with McVeigh in the days before the bombing. During that critical period, McVeigh rented a Ryder rental truck and reportedly mixed the fuel oil and fertilizer into barrels, then placed the bomb ingredients in the back of the truck at a Kansas fishing lake.

The government tried to suggest that Nichols helped McVeigh mix the bomb. But their best witnesses were two fishermen who saw a Ryder truck and a pickup resembling Nichols' vehicle, but did not see Nichols or McVeigh there.

The defense sought to show that Nichols was attending a Ft. Riley, Kan., military-surplus auction at the time the bomb was mixed.

They also portrayed Nichols as a husband and father who was trying to break off his relationship with McVeigh, a buddy from their Army days together, and start a new life in the small town of Herington, Kan. And they noted that he voluntarily surrendered to authorities after hearing his name broadcast in connection with the bombing.

But many observers thought the defense slipped when it put Nichols' wife, Marife Nichols, on the stand to describe her husband as a loving family man. Under cross-examination by the prosecution, she shot holes through his alibi about his whereabouts during the time the bomb was mixed. Marife Nichols, who was not in the courtroom to hear the verdicts, also recalled in her testimony that in the explosion's aftermath, her husband panicked when he noticed a fuel meter believed used to blend the bomb still lying on the floor in their garage.

Faced with these two conflicting scenarios, some legal analysts believe that the jury simply found that while Nichols conceived of the idea to bomb the Murrah building with McVeigh, he never fully went through with the plans or thought that McVeigh would detonate the bomb during busy office hours.

"That may have been the compromise," Walsh said.

Added Scott Robinson, another local legal analyst who has watched both trials: "It appears [jurors] believed he did not mean for the bomb to go off when so many people were in the building."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What the Jury Found

Verdicts announced Tuesday in the trial of Terry L. Nichols.

* Conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building (GUILTY).

* Involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of eight federal agents. Involuntary manslaughter was defined for the jury as "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice" (GUILTY).

* Use of a weapon of mass destruction; using a truck bomb to kill (NOT GUILTY).

* Destruction by explosive; using a truck bomb to destroy the building (NOT GUILTY).

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"I'm damn sure not happy about this verdict."

--Dan McKinney, whose wife was killed in bombing

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Next Steps

A look ahead at expected developments in the Oklahoma City bombing case:

Nichols' sentencing: The sentencing phase of his federal trial begins Monday.

State trials: Both Nichols and Timothy J. McVeigh face state trials in Oklahoma. Bob Macy, the Oklahoma County district attorney, says he will immediately seek 160 counts of murder against Nichols.

McVeigh's appeal: McVeigh's appeal of his federal conviction and death sentence in the bombing will continue. The deadline for his attorneys to file a brief regarding the appeal in Jan. 14.

Grand jury: An Oklahoma County grand jury will continue to hear testimony from witnesses as it investigates whether the federal government was aware of the bombing plot and ignored evidence of other suspects.

Source: Associated Press

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