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Prosecutors Seek Death For Nichols

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 1997; Page A03

DENVER, Dec. 29óWith a stream of witnesses testifying to their anguish and loss, the federal government today began its high-stakes effort to convince the same jurors who acquitted Terry L. Nichols of murder that they should now condemn him to death for conspiring to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building.

Several jurors wept as mothers and sons, husbands and wives described in gut-wrenching detail the devastation and horror that has consumed them since April 19, 1995, the day a 4,000-pound truck bomb ripped open the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.

A tearful mother spoke of losing her only son in the Murrah building's day-care center; a rescue worker choking back tears told of finding bodies torn in half by the force of the explosion; and a husband sadly spoke of losing his wife of 37 years, "the best friend I ever had."

Nichols's chief attorney, Michael Tigar, in his opening statement for this penalty phase of the trial, countered by promising jurors "a picture of a person whose life pattern is inconsistent with . . . an intent to actually take a life . . . inconsistent with qualities that would say [Nichols] is beyond redemption."

A crimson-faced Nichols, 42, tightened his jaw and blinked back tears as Tigar told jurors how Nichols has spent the past 32 months in prison nurturing his three children from afar and making greeting cards for them using multicolored toothpaste because he is prohibited from having sharp items.

The anonymous jury of seven women and five men last Tuesday convicted Nichols of conspiracy to use a "weapon of mass destruction," but in a split verdict that has incensed relatives of victims, acquitted Nichols of first-degree murder in the deaths of eight law enforcement officials who perished in the explosion. Nichols instead was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and acquitted of using the "weapon of mass destruction" -- the truck bomb -- and of actually bombing the nine-story building.

The conspiracy conviction carries with it the possibility of a death sentence by lethal injection because people died as a result of the plot. The jury also has the option of sentencing Nichols to life in prison without the possibility of ever being released, or it can voluntarily turn the sentencing issue over to U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch for a lesser sentence. Matsch would also take over the sentencing if jurors could not agree.

In June, Nichols's Army buddy Timothy J. McVeigh, who detonated the truck bomb while Nichols was at home in Kansas, was convicted on 11 counts of conspiracy and first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

In Nichols's case, however, legal experts suggest that the seemingly inconsistent verdict signals that a death sentence will be a tougher call for these jurors, several of whom expressed reservations about capital punishment when they were questioned in open court last fall.

Prosecutor Patrick Ryan in his opening argument today acknowledged the split verdict, but nonetheless implored jurors to condemn Nichols to death because of the enormity of the crime, insisting that Nichols had to be acutely aware that people might die as a result of the conspiracy.

"Who could plan an attack on secretaries, on engineers . . . on credit union tellers, and yes, even children?" Ryan asked jurors. "Terry Nichols made a conscious decision each step of the way.

"The defendant's conspiracy resulted in the deaths of many husbands . . . many wives . . . many sisters . . . many brothers . . . the death of three unborn children," said Ryan, the U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City.

Ryan then dramatically recited the names of the 19 young children killed in the blast, 15 of whom had been attending the day-care center that morning. The government will present about 60 witnesses, including blast survivors, relatives of victims and rescue workers, some of whom took the stand today.

"My life has absolutely come to a halt," Roy Sells said of the day he found out that his wife, Leora Lee, had died. "I've not been able to do anything, to go anyplace except concentrate on what was going on here in Denver." Sells said he has attended every day of both the McVeigh and Nichols trials.

With a box of tissues sitting before her on the witness stand, a weeping Laura Kennedy said of her 18-month-old son who died in the blast, "Blake meant everything to me. I have an emptiness inside of me that's there all the time."

To satisfy the requirements of the federal death penalty law, the government must prove a number of legally defined "aggravating" circumstances. Among those Ryan vowed to prove: that the crime was premeditated, that Nichols deliberately acted against federal law enforcement officials, that he created a grave risk of death to persons other than those killed, and that the crime caused serious physical and emotional harm to its victims.

The defense will then have the opportunity to present "mitigating" circumstances, which Tigar said will include Nichols's state of mind, his "relatively minor" role in the crime, how "others who were equally culpable will not be punished by death," and evidence about "Terry Nichols, the human being."

Tigar last week unsuccessfully attempted to block prosecutors from proceeding with the penalty phase, claiming that a defendant convicted of involuntary manslaughter cannot be sentenced to death. The defense will no doubt appeal any death sentence.

The jury forewoman, a pediatric nurse and the first prospective juror questioned in the case, acknowledged in September that she had been a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a vocal foe of capital punishment. Under questioning from attorneys soliciting her views on the death penalty, she said that "in general it seems like it's people setting themselves up in judgment over someone else, making a decision that isn't ours to make."

A school bus driver who sits on the jury also seemed uneasy about judging the value of a man's life when questioned by attorneys during jury selection. "I'm not a great death penalty person, but I guess . . . I'm open-minded," the juror said. A geophysicist on the panel said he supports the death penalty in the case of organized crime figures, but added that he did not think capital punishment served as a deterrent.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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