Terry Nichols Found Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter and Conspiracy in Oklahoma City
Dec. 24, 1997
Terry Nichols Found Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter and Conspiracy in Oklahoma City Bombing; Families of Bomb Victims Outraged at Lesser ConvictionBy SANDY SHORE
DENVER (AP) _ Jurors who decided Terry Nichols shares the blame for the Oklahoma City bombing but is no murderer now must determine if he will pay with his life for the nation's deadliest act of homegrown terrorism.
To the wrath and anguish of bombing victims and relatives of the dead, jurors on Tuesday refused to convict Nichols of murder, instead finding him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and of conspiring with Timothy McVeigh.
The conspiracy conviction carries the death penalty. The sentencing phase is scheduled to begin Monday.
Survivors and victims' relatives cried out for a harsher verdict as they learned that only McVeigh will be branded a murderer for killing 168 people in an act that ripped apart the nation's sense of security. Nichols, portrayed as a willing participant in McVeigh's plot to avenge the government's 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound, was actually acquitted of two charges.
``How dare that jury think that 168 deaths is involuntary manslaughter?'' asked Darlene Welch, whose 4-year-old niece was killed in the blast.
``What I heard in the courtroom today is a disgrace,'' said Jannie Coverdale, who lost two grandsons. ``It's a disgrace to all Americans.''
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch scheduled a hearing today to hear defense arguments seeking to throw out the verdict and block the possibility of a death sentence. The defense said there is an inherent conflict in the convictions of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy.
Nichols frowned as the verdicts were read. Two jurors wept softly.
Turning to spectators, including many victims' relatives who were sobbing, Matsch said: ``These folks don't have to answer to anybody for their decision.''
Nichols, 42, was convicted of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter for the eight federal agents killed in the blast. He was acquitted of using a weapon of mass destruction and of destruction by explosive.
The split verdict came six months after McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death on 11 identical counts. His appeal is pending.
Unlike McVeigh's jury, jurors for Nichols were allowed to consider lesser charges 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 as a slaying ``without malice. ... a lawful act done without due caution, which might produce death.''
Jurors deliberated 41 hours over six days before concluding that the government case built on fertilizer receipts, phone records and Ryder truck sightings was not enough to declare Nichols a mass murderer.
He was safe in his Kansas house more than 200 miles away from Oklahoma City at the time of the blast _ even prosecutors conceded that point. His lawyers called him a family man who was ``building a life, not a bomb.''
But prosecutors said McVeigh and Nichols worked side by side to build the 4,000-pound fuel-and-fertilizer bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, in retaliation for the FBI siege near Waco exactly two years earlier.
While McVeigh's trial drew heavily on survivors describing the ordeal, the streamlined case against Nichols instead detailed the low-budget motels, calling card communiques and coded letters that linked the two men in the seven months before the blast.
Prosecutors introduced evidence that Nichols used an alias to buy two tons of explosive fertilizer and helped McVeigh steal explosives. They contended he robbed an Arkansas gun collector to raise money.
The government accused Nichols of helping McVeigh deliver a getaway car to Oklahoma City and of working with McVeigh to pack the bomb inside a Ryder truck.
The evidence included items seized at Nichols' home _ suspicious receipts, barrels resembling plastic fragments found at the bomb scene, weapons traced to the Arkansas robbery and anti-government literature.
Jurors were also told of letters Nichols gave to his former wife five months before the bombing. One, for McVeigh, urged his Army buddy to ``go for it.''
Yet Nichols' lawyers said the government discarded any evidence that didn't fit the theory that McVeigh and Nichols were the culprits. They produced nearly a dozen witnesses who were positive they saw a Ryder truck at the lake as much as a week before prosecutors say the bomb was built.
Other defense witnesses said they saw McVeigh with short, burly men during that key week, raising again the specter of another partner.
The last defense witness, however, proved to be one of the best witnesses for the prosecution.
Marife Nichols, his 24-year-old wife, was unable to provide an alibi for her husband on the crucial day when the bomb was allegedly built. She may very well return to the stand next week as Nichols' attorneys try to secure prison time instead of a death sentence.
At the bombing site in Oklahoma City, a hush settled over a small group of bombing victims and family members as they heard the verdict under media tents in a driving rain.
Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy shook his head in disbelief as the innocent verdicts were read. He said he would seek 160 state murder charges against Nichols for the others who died in the blast.
``I am very surprised,'' he said. ``I have a hard time understanding how the jury could reach that verdict.''
As she left the Denver courthouse Tuesday night, Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter in the blast, was asked if the decision weighed on her heart.
``Sometimes I feel like it's bleeding,'' she said, choking back tears. ``It's just so much. Forty some hours and six days, involuntary manslaughter. It's just tough to take.''