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Nichols Guilty of Conspiracy, Manslaughter

By Lois Romano and Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 24, 1997; Page A01

DENVER, Dec. 23—Terry L. Nichols, a father of three who led a seemingly prosaic midwestern life for four decades, was today convicted on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter in the massive truck bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the nation's most notorious and deadliest act of domestic terrorism, which killed 168 people.

The conspiracy conviction carries with it the possibility of the death penalty.

Nichols, 42, was acquitted on charges of using a weapon of mass destruction and of actually bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, six months after his Army buddy Timothy J. McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death in June on all 11 counts of conspiracy and first-degree murder in the bombing.

The federal jury of seven women and five men took 41 hours over six days to decide that Nichols had conspired with McVeigh to use a weapon of mass destruction in the April 19, 1995, attack. But by rejecting the first-degree murder charges in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officials, the panel also concluded that Nichols had not intended to kill those inside the Murrah building.

"It was a slap in the face," said Diane Leonard, whose husband Donald, a Secret Service agent, was one of the eight law enforcement officers killed.

Said Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter in the blast, "He conspired to build the bomb. What the hell did they think he was going to do with it?"

Two female jurors in the front row, as well as several relatives of victims, wept as the verdicts were read. Nichols sat expressionless, never taking his eyes off of U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch as he read the 11 conspiracy and murder counts, followed by the verdicts. Nichols's mother, father, brother and sister somberly sat in the front row.

"It ain't over," said his brother James as he left the courtroom.

The split verdict was seen as a partial victory for the defense, which had vigorously challenged every aspect of the government's circumstantial case.

Matsch will sentence Nichols on the manslaughter counts, each of which carries a maximum of six years. But as it stands now, the guilty verdict on the conspiracy count calls for this same jury to decide whether Nichols should be sentenced to death or whether he should spend the rest of his life in jail. The panel can opt to hand the responsibility back to the judge for a lesser sentence. The penalty phase begins Monday.

Nichols's chief attorney, Michael Tigar, immediately served notice in court that he intended to challenge the penalty phase, indicating it is inconsistent to subject Nichols to a possible death penalty on the conspiracy charge, after the jury failed to find him guilty of murder. Matsch granted Tigar a hearing Wednesday morning. "I think the verdict speaks for itself," said Tigar.

Minutes after the verdict, prosecutor Larry Mackey said, "The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict in its entirety. We are prepared to go forward."

Legal observers predicted that the mixed verdict will bode well for Nichols in the penalty phase because it indicated that the jurors view his role as substantially different than McVeigh's.

"I would be very surprised if the jury sentenced Nichols to death," said Andrew Cohen, a Denver attorney who has monitored both trials. "They distinguished in their own minds what both men did."

Nichols and McVeigh could be charged under federal law only with the murders of the eight law enforcement officials who died in the line of duty: Secret Service agents Mickey Maroney, Donald Leonard, Alan Whicher and Cynthia Campbell-Brown; DEA agent Kenneth McCullough; Customs Service agents Paul Ice and Claude Madearis; and Paul Broxterman, an agent in the office of the Inspector General at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy shook his head in disbelief as the not guilty verdicts were read, according to the Associated Press, and he vowed to immediately seek 160 murder charges against Nichols for the others who died in the blast. "I am very surprised. I'm familiar with the evidence. I have a hard time understanding how the jury could reach that verdict," he said.

At the site of the bombing in downtown Oklahoma City, a hush settled over a small group of survivors of the explosion and relatives of the victims as they heard the verdict under tents in the pouring rain. "I don't think anything a jury comes up with would surprise anybody," Jim Denny, whose two young children, Brandon and Rebecca, were injured in the bombing.

In a statement issued minutes after the verdicts were announced in Denver, President Clinton said, "I know that no verdict in a court of law can ease the loss of a loved one. But the successful prosecution of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols should offer a measure of comfort that all Americans stand with the families of Oklahoma City."

The verdict comes 32 months after McVeigh, a decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, calmly parked his rented truck in front of the Murrah building within sight of the day-care center on the second floor and lit a fuse leading to two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and racing fuel. Moments later the massive explosion virtually destroyed the building and forever shattered a nation's confidence that terrorism is something that happens elsewhere.

Within hours of the blast, the country focused its wrath on unknown international terrorists. But all too soon it became apparent that these terrorists were home grown. McVeigh was arrested less than 90 minutes after the blast 75 miles away during a routine traffic stop. He was the prime suspect almost immediately. Through the Nichols family address in Decker, Mich., which McVeigh routinely used on forms and applications, the FBI zeroed in on Terry Nichols within two days of the bombing.

Nichols, who met McVeigh in the Army in 1988, had long drifted through a life of disappointments, few lasting relationships and no secure livelihood. He and McVeigh quickly discovered that they shared a distrust of the federal government: Nichols doesn't have a bank account, doesn't pay taxes and once tried to renounce his citizenship.

Two days after the bombing, Nichols -- toting his then-toddler, Nichole, turned himself in at the Herington, Kan., police station, asking the local authorities why he was hearing his name on the news in connection with the crime. He never went home again, first held as a material witness and eventually charged as a co-conspirator.

But proving his guilt would end up a greater challenge for the federal government than it had been in the McVeigh case. There was no evidence that Nichols had rented the Ryder truck used to carry the bomb to Oklahoma City, and there was no one who could positively identify him as the purchaser of the two tons of ammonium nitrate, the major component in the bomb.

Most problematic for the government was the compelling fact that Nichols was at home in Kansas when McVeigh detonated the truck in front of the Murrah building at the promising start of a sunny workday.

Presenting nearly 100 witnesses in four weeks, prosecutors traced an intricate web of circumstantial evidence tying Nichols to McVeigh. In often tedious detail, the government sought to show that Nichols knew exactly what McVeigh was up to, that the men were in constant phone communication, that together they bought or sold ingredients for their homemade bomb, hid them in several storage lockers rented under aliases, and then assembled them at a state fishing park in rural Kansas.

The government also sought to show that Nichols shared McVeigh's intense hatred for the federal government and bombed the building to avenge the government's assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., two years to the day before the bombing.

A Kansas rancher for whom Nichols worked told the jury that Nichols once said that "the government needed to be overthrown."

Tim Donahue testified Nichols had complained that the federal government had gotten "too big and too powerful," particularly with respect to Waco. "He talked about . . . [how] they had raided the compound and killed innocent people," said Donahue.

With a Wal-Mart receipt for a $2.54 oil filter bearing both men's fingerprints, the government showed that McVeigh and Nichols were together on April 14 or 15 -- despite Nichols's claims to the contrary.

Defense lawyers countered by repeatedly claiming that the government had tailored evidence to fit its theory of the crime, and accused the government of trying to convict Nichols of "guilt by association."

Early on, Tigar successfully forced the government to retreat from the highly effective, emotional victim testimony that drove the McVeigh case and often brought those jurors to tears. In the face of constant challenges and objections from the defense, prosecutors kept the victim testimony short and to the point.

In order to blunt the impact of anti-government materials found in a box in Nichols's home, Tigar showed that McVeigh disbursed hate literature to many others. And in a small victory for the defense, Matsch agreed to instruct the jurors that "expressions of sympathy and support for those who commit unlawful acts do not, without more, constitute entry into an unlawful agreement."

Seeking to sow doubt with the jury, defense lawyers presented a parade of witnesses who reported seeing multiple Ryder trucks in mid-Kansas in April and seeing short, swarthy men with McVeigh -- men who vaguely resembled one-time suspect John Doe No. 2, who was never identified and never found.

But in the end, it was the women in Nichols's life who may have done him the most damage. His ex-wife Lana Padilla, the mother of his son Josh, told jurors of a note Nichols had left McVeigh telling his friend to "go for it." Nichols's current wife Marife was called by the defense, but virtually became a prosecution witness. The 24-year-old Filipino mail-order bride, with whom he has a son and daughter, portrayed their marriage as distant and confirmed that Nichols and McVeigh were best friends.

Marife Nichols was also unable to provide her husband with an alibi on the day for which he desperately needed one -- April 18 -- when the government alleges he helped McVeigh assemble the bomb at a state park near his home in Herington.

In a final slap at Nichols's efforts to show the jury he was a family man, prosecutor Mackey told jurors: "Terrorists have families. The question is how they treat them, how they allow the dedication to a political principle to corrupt what should important to them."

In retrospect, it appears that the key tactical moment in the case came earlier this month when Tigar convinced Matsch to include in his instructions to the jury the possibility of finding Nichols guilty of either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter as well as first-degree murder. That cleared the way for the jury to find a middle path, which they took late today.

"I blame the judge," said a distressed Jannie Coverdale, who lost two grandchildren in the rubble of the Murrah Building's day-care center. "He should never have included the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges."

Referring to those toddlers, Coverdale said: "Aaron and Elijah are dead."

MIXED VERDICT

How the jury found against Terry L. Nichols:

Count 1: GUILTY

Conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Count 2: NOT GUILTY

Use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Count 3: NOT GUILTY

Destruction by explosive.

Counts 4-11: GUILTY of involuntary manslaughter

Original charge was first-degree murder of eight federal law enforcement officers.

FROM PLAN TO CONVICTION

A history of the Oklahoma bombing and Terry L. Nichols's involvement

1994

Sept. 13: Timothy J. McVeigh tells his Army buddy Michael Fortier in a letter that he and Nichols plan to take "some type of positive offensive action," according to Fortier's testimony at the McVeigh trial.

Sept. 22: Terry L. Nichols, using the alias "Shawn Rivers," rents a storage unit in Herington, Kan.

Sept. 30: Nichols, using the alias "Mike Havens," buys a ton of ammonium nitrate at the Mid-Kansas Co-op in McPherson, Kan. After the bombing, the receipt, with McVeigh's fingerprint on it, is found at Nichols's home in Herington.

Weekend of Oct. 1: Nichols and McVeigh steal explosives from a Kansas quarry.

Oct. 4: McVeigh rents a storage locker in Kingman, Ariz., and he and Nichols store the stolen explosives there.

Oct. 17: Nichols, using the alias "Joe Kyle," rents a locker in Council Grove, Kan.

Oct. 18: Nichols, using the name Mike Havens, buys another ton of ammonium nitrate at the farmers' co-op in McPherson.

Nov. 5: Nichols robs an Arkansas gun dealer, Roger Moore, of $60,000 in guns, cash and gold coins.

Nov. 7: Nichols, using the alias "Ted Parker," rents a storage locker in Council Grove, Kan.

1995

April 16: Nichols helps McVeigh place getaway car near the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and drives him back to Kansas.

April 18: Nichols helps construct the bomb in the rented 20-foot Ryder truck at Geary State Fishing Lake near Herington.

April 19: Bomb explodes at Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City at 9:02 a.m., killing 168. McVeigh is arrested 75 minutes later on firearms charge after traffic stop near Perry, Okla.

April 21: Federal authorities arrest McVeigh in connection with bombing. Nichols surrenders after learning police are looking for him.

May 10: Nichols charged in bombing.

Aug. 11: Grand jury indicts McVeigh and Nichols on murder and conspiracy charges.

Oct. 20: Attorney General Janet Reno authorizes prosecutors to seek death penalty.

Dec. 1: Chief U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch of Denver appointed to preside.

1996

Feb. 20: Matsch moves case to Denver, ruling that McVeigh and Nichols have been "demonized" by media coverage in Oklahoma.

Oct. 25: Matsch orders McVeigh and Nichols to be tried separately, ruling their rights could be compromised by joint trial.

1997

Jan. 27: Four FBI workers who evaluated evidence are transferred out of crime lab in wake of federal report critical of lab procedures.

Feb. 28: The Dallas Morning News reports that McVeigh confessed. Two other reports on purported confession follow.

April 24: Opening statements begin in McVeigh's trial.

June 2: McVeigh found guilty on all counts.

June 13: Jurors recommend death penalty for McVeigh.

Nov. Nov. 3: Opening statements begin in Nichols's trial.

Yesterday: Jurors find Nichols guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, not guilty of bombing the federal building, and guilty of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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