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updated 5/26/2004 3:27:56 PM ET 2004-05-26T19:27:56

Jury deliberations began Wednesday in the state murder trial of Terry Nichols, who could face the death penalty if convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"The most important work is beginning," Judge Steven Taylor told jury members before they filed into a room to begin their work. "The work of actually deciding this case is left with you ladies and gentleman."

Jurors are being asked to consider two starkly different versions of Nichols' role in the deadly bombing: The defense says he was manipulated, while prosecutors describe a mastermind.

"How long you deliberate ladies and gentleman is up to you," Taylor said. "You all are going to set the schedule on this."

The six-man, six-woman jury began deliberations about 9:15 a.m. CDT after a two-month state murder trial that included testimony from about 250 witnesses. They will be sequestered for the duration of their deliberations.

They can either find Nichols guilty or not guilty and their verdict must be unanimous. Taylor has ruled that the jury cannot consider lesser charges.

Shortly after deliberations began, the jury sent a note to the judge asking for a dictionary. He refused the request.

In closing arguments Tuesday, the defense poked at holes in the bombing investigation and argued that prosecutors haven't proven Nichols helped Timothy McVeigh bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Defense attorney Barbara Bergman said McVeigh was aided by others who set up Nichols to take the blame for the deaths of 168 people killed in the April 19, 1995, blast.

"This is a case about manipulation, betrayal and overreaching," Bergman said. "People who are still unknown assisted Timothy McVeigh."

Prosecutor Lou Keel said in his closing arguments that Nichols did more to gather bomb components and plan the bombing than McVeigh, who was executed in June of 2001. The government says Nichols bought the explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer used in the bomb and stole detonation cord, blasting caps and other explosives.

But Bergman reminded jurors of dozens of witnesses who testified they saw McVeigh with others, including a stocky, dark-haired man depicted in an FBI sketch and known only as John Doe No. 2, in the weeks before the bombing. Witnesses said the others did not resemble Nichols.

"McVeigh was the kind of person to use other people," Bergman said.

"The state has jumped over a lot of holes in the case. The state has to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and they haven't."

Prosecutors said Nichols and McVeigh planned the bombing to avenge the deadly siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, exactly two years before the bombing.

If Nichols is convicted, the trial would move into a penalty phase where jurors would decide whether he should face the death penalty or life in prison.

Nichols, 49, already is serving a federal life sentence for involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officials in the bombing. He is accused of 161 counts of first-degree murder in state court for the deaths of the other victims plus a fetus whose mother was killed in the blast.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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