McALESTER, Okla. -- A surge of complex and contradictory emotions coursed through Oklahoma on Saturday, a day after a jury weighing the fate of Terry L. Nichols announced that it could not agree whether Nichols should die for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing.
There was anger among some who had hoped for a death sentence. There was relief among those who wanted to see the end of nine years of motions, hearings and trials. There was a sense of victory among those who were pleased that Nichols had been convicted of murder, even if the jury could not agree on a sentence.
Perhaps the most unanticipated response came from those who believed Nichols was the state’s best and last chance for unraveling what they saw as an enduring and maddening mystery. The end of the trial -- a quick conviction, but a division among jurors as to the sentence -- rekindled the belief among some that the Oklahoma City bombing plot was more complex than government officials had allowed, and involved people who had not been identified or caught.
Nichols, 49, was convicted last month of arson, conspiracy to commit arson and 161 counts of first-degree murder, including one count for the death of a fetus. The jury’s choices were the death penalty, life in prison or life in prison without possibility of parole, but jurors said they were unable to reach unanimous agreement.
That spared the life of Nichols, who also escaped the death sentence during a federal trial seven years ago.
On April 19, 1995, the morning of the blast in Oklahoma City, Kathy Wilburn was working downtown. When the bomb went off, she raced toward the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with her 23-year-old daughter Edye, whose sons were enrolled in day-care there. They found 3-year-old Chase in the bed of a refrigerated truck wearing a toe tag. Two-year-old Colton had died in a rescuer’s arms.
“Edye fell to her knees,” Wilburn said Saturday. “I kept telling her: ‘It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.’ But it was the first time in my life that I lied to her. I knew it wasn’t going to be all right.”
It would seem understandable if Wilburn were first in line among those who wanted to see Nichols die for his role in that bombing. Instead, she is among those who are glad that the jury deadlocked -- because they fear Nichols would have taken his secrets with him.
“There were absolutely others involved,” Wilburn said. “I have no doubt about it. You always have hopes that we might know the truth, so I’m glad they aren’t executing him. I think he’s got more pieces of the puzzle, and I think someday we might learn more.”
Prosecutors said Nichols and Timothy J. McVeigh, onetime Army friends who shared a hatred of the federal government, orchestrated the attack. The bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children, was meant to avenge the government’s 1993 raid on a religious compound near Waco, Texas, that left scores of people dead, officials said.
McVeigh was executed in 2001. Nichols is already serving a life prison term, without possibility of parole, on his federal court conviction in the deaths of eight law enforcement officers.
Jurors told reporters Saturday that they were deeply divided throughout their three days of deliberation, less over Nichols’ involvement than over whether he deserved their sympathy or mercy.
“It was a very, very difficult time,” juror Teresa Ann Zellmer said.
The McAlester resident declined to reveal whether she favored life in prison or death by lethal injection.
“We all did the best job we could,” she said.
With the jury’s inability to sentence Nichols in his state trial, a judge is scheduled in August to give him another life prison term.
A third man, Michael Fortier, was sentenced to 12 years in prison after prosecutors said he knew about the attack plans and helped McVeigh sell a cache of stolen guns to finance the bombing.
Oklahoma County Dist. Atty. Wes Lane, who took over the state’s case against Nichols in 2001, said Saturday that the trial should be seen as a victory for those who wanted someone held accountable for most of the deaths that occurred that morning.
Because McVeigh was executed before he could be brought to trial on state charges, and because Nichols’ prior conviction was limited to the eight law enforcement officers, technically, no one had been found responsible for the remaining victims before Nichols’ conviction in state court last month.
“They had never had their day in court,” Lane said. “The biggest victory in this is that Terry Nichols has been forced to accept responsibility whether he likes it or not.”
No other suspects have ever been found, he said.
“I can tell you this: Had anyone on my staff ever identified a co-conspirator who had not been charged, it would have been a major feather in my cap,” he said. “But we have just never identified a co-conspirator.”
Prosecutors had hoped that Nichols’ state trial would put to rest concerns that others responsible for the bombing remained at large. That did not happen.
Wild theories abound -- that the federal government blew up its own building, that Nichols was an associate of Al Qaeda. Like prosecutors and defense lawyers, the vast majority of survivors and victims’ relatives call those theories rubbish. But Wilburn and others connected to the bombing remain certain that there is evidence to suggest a more mundane and likely conspiracy.
Nichols’ attorneys in the state case, for instance, alleged that a gang of white-supremacist bank robbers helped McVeigh plan the bombing.
One woman who worked at the Murrah building testified during Nichols’ state trial that she saw McVeigh with another man in an alley shortly after the explosion. She is among several witnesses who say they saw McVeigh with other people -- not Nichols -- either before or after the attack.
And although McVeigh is known to have driven a Ryder truck packed with explosives to the Murrah building that morning, other witnesses say that there were two Ryder trucks parked at a Kansas motel where he stayed before the bombing, and that McVeigh was staying with at least two other men.
Prosecutors dispute those accounts. Some bombing survivors and relatives’ victims do too.
Jannie Coverdale, 66, an Oklahoma City retiree whose two grandchildren died in the bombing, said she did not believe in what she saw as more fanciful conspiracy theories. But she said she believed others helped plot the bombing.
“And some people believe Terry Nichols is going to give up the information one of these years,” she said. “These people operate in cells. I will always believe that other people were involved. And I don’t believe that we should be crucified for that.”
Relying on Nichols to reveal whether others were involved, if there were any others, is a longshot, acknowledged Gloria Chipman, an Edmond, Okla., resident whose husband, Robert, was killed in the blast.
“I hope they keep a good eye on him,” she said. “But if he hasn’t talked before, I don’t think he’s going to start now.”