Nearly a decade after the Oklahoma City bombing, Terry Nichols was found guilty of 161 state murder charges Wednesday for helping carry out what was then the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. He could get the death sentence he escaped when he was convicted in federal court in the 1990s.
The verdict came after only five hours of deliberations. Nichols was stone-faced and stared straight ahead at the judge as the verdicts were read. His attorneys bowed their heads and clenched their hands together.
Oklahoma prosecutors brought the case with the goal of finally winning a death sentence against Nichols, who is serving a life term on federal charges. The same 12-member jury will now determine Nichols’ fate on the state charges: life in prison or death by injection. The penalty phase will begin Tuesday.
The April 19, 1995, blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people. McVeigh was executed in June 2001, and until now was the only person convicted of murder in the bombing.
‘These two were partners’
Prosecutors contended Nichols worked hand in hand with former Army buddy Timothy McVeigh to acquire the ingredients and build the fuel-and-fertilizer bomb in a twisted plot to avenge the government siege in Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier that left about 80 people dead.
“These two were partners, and their business was terrorism,” prosecutor Lou Keel said during opening statements.
Prosecutors brought a mountain of circumstantial evidence during a two-month trial that included testimony from about 250 witnesses. They said Nichols bought the explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer used in the bombing and stole detonation cord, blasting caps and other explosives.
Defense said he was victim of set-up
The defense contended that others helped McVeigh carry out the bombing and that Nichols was the fall guy for a wider conspiracy. Witnesses testified that 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. Authorities later concluded that the mystery man was actually an Army private who had nothing to do with the bombing.
“This is a case about manipulation, betrayal and overreaching,” defense attorney Barbara Bergman said in closing arguments. “People who are still unknown assisted Timothy McVeigh.”
Defense lawyers had planned on bringing up evidence that a shadowy group of conspirators, including members a white supremacist gang, helped McVeigh with the bombing. But Judge Steven Taylor refused to allow that evidence, saying the defense never showed that such people made any overt acts to further the bomb plot.
Prosecutors say McVeigh and Nichols began acquiring the key ingredients for the bomb seven months before the blast, then met at a park near Junction City, Kan., to pack it inside a Ryder truck on April 18, 1995. Nichols was at his home in Kansas 200 miles away when the bomb went off.
29 days of testimony
A total of 151 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution over 29 days of testimony that included several gruesome and tearful descriptions of the bombing.
The trial was moved 130 miles from Oklahoma City to McAlester because of the difficulty in finding an impartial jury in the city where passions still run high over the bombing.
The state’s star witness was Michael Fortier, who is serving a 12-year sentence for knowing about the plot and not telling authorities.
Fortier, a close friend of McVeigh’s, said McVeigh told him Nichols was deeply involved in the bomb plot and Nichols helped gather components, including the fertilizer that was mixed with high-octane fuel in the homemade bomb.
A receipt for the purchase of 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer was discovered in Nichols’ home by FBI agents three days after the bombing.
Fortier said McVeigh and Nichols also burglarized a Kansas rock quarry near Nichols’ home in Herington, Kan., and stole the detonation cord and blasting caps. In addition, prosecutors alleged that Nichols robbed a gun collector to finance the bomb plot.
But there were no witnesses who identified Nichols as the man who bought fertilizer, stole the explosives or committed the robbery. Prosecutors linked Nichols to the explosives theft through forensic evidence from a broken padlock and said gold coins and weapons from the gun collector were found at his home.
Nichols was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 on federal involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy convictions for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officials. Oklahoma prosecutors charged Nichols with the deaths of the 160 other victims and one victim’s fetus.
Nichols was also found guilty of first-degree arson and conspiracy.
Dozens of victims’ family members and survivors of the bombing are expected to testify in the penalty phase, which is expected to last four to six weeks.