Terry L. Nichols’ life was spared a second time Friday night when a jury deciding whether he should die for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing said it was hopelessly deadlocked despite prosecutors’ efforts to paint him as an architect of the attack.
The same six men and six women who convicted Nichols of 161 counts of first-degree murder last month deliberated for nearly 21 hours over three days before announcing they were at an impasse in a series of notes to District Judge Steven W. Taylor.
The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 children. Survivors of the bombing and relatives of those killed wept with frustration in the courtroom Friday.
“If I could ask the jury one question it would be this: How many people do you have to kill before you get the death sentence?” said Roy Sells, 71, whose wife, Leora Lee, was killed in the blast.
Others, emotionally exhausted by nine years of legal wrangling, were through asking questions. “Let him rot,” said Paul Howell, 67, whose daughter Karan Howell Shepherd, 27, died in the blast.
Still others said that with the end of the trial, Oklahoma will finally move on.
“I’m not going to let him win. Not any more,” said Priscilla Salyers, 53, who was on the fifth floor when the bomb erupted. She fell into what became known as “The Pit” -- the pile of rubble at the center of the collapsed building -- and was trapped for four hours before she was rescued.
“If I feel bitterness, he might as well have killed me too,” she said. “And I’m not going to let him do that.”
Under Oklahoma law, if a jury cannot reach a decision on the death penalty, responsibility for sentencing falls to the judge. Only a jury can sentence someone to die. Taylor said his only choices are life in prison and life in prison without possibility of parole. He set sentencing for Aug. 9.
Nichols, 49, is already serving a life prison term, without possibility of parole, following a separate federal conviction in the deaths of eight law enforcement agents killed in the blast. Prosecutors in that case also failed to secure the death penalty after jurors disagreed on whether Nichols took part in the plot with the knowledge that people could die.
The state trial was a separate action brought on behalf of the remaining bomb victims, as well as a fetus. The decision to bring state charges against Nichols in 1999 was a controversial one. Many in Oklahoma do not believe the trial, which lasted for three months, was worth the financial costs or the emotional toll. The cost of the trial is not yet known, but earlier estimates ranged from $4 million to more than $10 million.
The jury’s inability to agree on a sentence renewed charges that the case was motivated by vengeance and was a waste of energy and resources.
“The politics of the death penalty need to be addressed,” said Garvin A. Isaacs, a Oklahoma City attorney who lost two friends to the bombing. “I’ve just had bad feelings about this whole exercise. When you look at the fact that this man is not going anywhere and will never hurt another person, it seems to me that reason should apply. I just don’t understand this. It makes no sense.”
Timothy J. McVeigh was also convicted in federal court in the deaths of the officers, and was executed in 2001 before he could be brought to trial on state charges. Nichols’ conviction in this case marks the first time, technically, that anyone has been held responsible for the majority of the deaths.
“They have now had their day in court,” said Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. Wes Lane. “Terry Nichols, for the first time, is now a convicted mass murderer.”
Taylor told the jurors Friday that they had provided a valuable service, regardless of their inability to reach unanimous agreement.
“I do not want any of you to leave this building tonight feeling that you have let down the system or not done your job,” he said. “No one -- no one -- should even suggest or hint that you haven’t done your job.”
Nichols’ defense team had little comment on the outcome of the case.
Prosecutors tried to make their case to the jury by recasting, to some degree, Nichols’ role in the bombing -- by painting him as an instigator, not a subordinate, and a philosophical inspiration, not a convert.
Authorities have long described McVeigh as the attack’s mastermind. It was McVeigh who drove a rented Ryder truck packed with an ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb to the Murrah building, then lighted the timed fuse.
Lead prosecutor Sandra Elliott told jurors this week that Nichols and McVeigh, onetime Army comrades, might not have discussed every facet of the bombing. Nichols, for instance, may not have known that McVeigh was headed for the Murrah building when he pulled away in the truck, Elliott said.
But Nichols grew up on a Michigan farm and used similar explosives to remove stumps; he knew more about building the bomb than McVeigh and was aware of the devastation it would cause, Elliott said. Nichols, she said, played a critical role in assembling the key components of the bomb. It was Nichols who stored the pieces until he and McVeigh met to put the bomb together.
McVeigh’s racism, distrust of the federal government, and fantasies of a “new world order” seemed to frighten off some people that he encountered in the months leading up to the attack, Elliott said. But it may have been Nichols, she said, who instilled hatred in McVeigh, who was 13 years younger. The attack was allegedly carried out to avenge the government’s 1993 raid on a religious compound near Waco, Texas. It was orchestrated, said Oklahoma County Assistant Dist. Atty. Suzanne Lister, by Nichols.
“He knew. He may not have known the names of the people he was going to kill, but he knew that bomb would kill,” Elliott said in closing arguments.
“Mr. Nichols should gain no advantage, should gain no benefit, from the fact that he allowed Mr. McVeigh to drive that truck to Oklahoma City. Because to the end -- to the bitter end -- Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols were in this together. They were joined in purpose. They were joined in thought.... Each of those people died so that they could make a political statement.”
Defense attorneys contested that depiction of Nichols, insisting that while he had “made mistakes,” he was unaware of specific attack plans. They also offered jurors reasons for sparing Nichols’ life. Nichols’ brother, for instance, testified that Nichols offered him skin grafts after the brother was burned in a fuel tank explosion in 1974.
“You must reach down into that place that I can’t go, where only you can go, and make a reasonable, moral decision,” defense attorney W. Creekmore Wallace told the jurors in his closing argument.