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By Tom Kenworthy
Nichols, 43, showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch imposed the sentence of life without parole for conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, a charge a federal jury convicted him of last December. Nichols also will serve eight six-year terms concurrently for his conviction in the same court on eight counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The sentencing closed the judicial books on a searing chapter in American history that underscored the nation's vulnerability to domestic terror, even in a city seemingly distant from the world's tumult and bloodshed. Against that backdrop, Matsch seemed to address the nation as a whole as well as Nichols when he spoke of how, instead of sowing discord, the bombing conspirators united the country.
"And what was the purpose of this conspiracy?" Matsch asked as Nichols stood impassively before him, flanked by two of his attorneys. "That purpose was to disrupt, to disorganize, to intimidate the operations of those agencies and of the U.S. government. . . . But you know, it didn't work out that way. . . . What occurred was that a community became even more united, and I think perhaps the country as well. There was no anarchy. There was no reign of terror. We proceeded with the orderly processes of recovery and of restoration."
Survivors and relatives of victims of the massive explosion, which nearly destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, smiled as Matsch imposed the sentence at 4:20 p.m. Nichols's son, Josh, and his former wife, Lana Padilla, wept in the back of the courtroom.
Nichols's co-conspirator, Timothy J. McVeigh, was convicted of murder June 2, 1997, and sentenced to death. Michael J. Fortier, a key witness who knew McVeigh and Nichols in the military, was sentenced to 12 years by a federal judge in Oklahoma City last month for failure to warn authorities.
Matsch imposed the sentence on Nichols five months after a federal jury convicted him of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter but could not agree on a penalty. The jury's verdict "calls upon me to issue a sentence that reflects principally the severity of the offense and which stands as a strong statement that crimes of this nature must not be tolerated in this nation," the judge declared.
Quoting from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and noting that the federal employees working at the Murrah building were following its dictates to ensure the domestic tranquillity and provide for a common defense, Matsch said of Nichols:
"What he did was participate with others in a conspiracy that would seek to destroy all of the things that the Constitution protects. My obligation as a judge is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Terry Nichols has proven to be an enemy of the Constitution, and accordingly the sentence I am going to impose will be for the duration of his life."
Matsch concluded, "Anyone, no matter who that person might be or what his background might be, who participates in a crime of this magnitude has forfeited the freedoms that this government is designed to protect."
Nichols's lawyer, Michael Tigar, filed a motion for a new trial, citing recent newspaper accounts that indicated the jury that convicted his client had met in small groups during their proceedings rather than deliberating as a body.
The sentencing, nevertheless, was an emotional denouement for survivors of the bombing and relatives of the victims, who have waited for more than three years for the judicial system to process the cases of Nichols, McVeigh and Fortier. For nearly two hours before the sentence was handed down, Oklahoma residents still physically and emotionally scarred by the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history told the court here of their suffering and losses and implored Matsch to impose the toughest possible sentence.
"Your honor, we ask that Terry Lynn Nichols never again be permitted to see the light of day outside of prison walls," said Martin Cash, a Veterans Affairs employee at the Murrah building who lost an eye, all his teeth, and lives with a plate in his skull from the explosion.
Reprising the wrenching emotional testimony that marked both the McVeigh and Nichols trials, survivors recounted the horrors of that bright April day and the torment that persists.
"The sights, sounds and smells of that day never leave me," said Virginia Moser, who rushed to the devastated Murrah building in search of her husband, Calvin, who suffered a permanent hearing loss, and ended up helping place blankets over the tiny bodies of young children who died in the building's day-care center. "On April 19, those babies didn't cry, but I hear them crying in my nightmares."
Almost every night since, said Moser, she has been awakened by dreams of that day. "I get up and try to run away from my nightmares," she said, "but there is no escape."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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