A state jury on Wednesday found Terry L. Nichols guilty of 161 counts of murder for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, bringing the mild-mannered father of three one step closer to the death sentence he avoided in his federal trial.
Judge Steven Taylor said the trial will move to the penalty phase on Tuesday, when the same jurors will hear at least a month of testimony on whether the state of Oklahoma should execute Nichols.
Nichols, who is already serving a federal life term for the bombing, looked straight ahead and showed no reaction as the judge read the verdict, which came after five hours of deliberation. His mother, Joyce Wilt, hung her head.
Relatives of the victims, who were warned by the judge to restrain themselves, clutched one another's hands with tears in their eyes. As soon as the court adjourned, many collapsed into the arms of prosecutors, thanking them.
"No one has ever been tried for these 161 murders," said Darlene Welch, whose 4-year-old niece perished in the blast. "It's good to know someone is now accountable for Ashley's death. He has never taken responsibility for any of this."
In 1997, Nichols and a former Army buddy, Timothy J. McVeigh, were convicted in federal court in Denver for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officials in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast killed 168 people.
McVeigh was executed for the crime, but -- to the disappointment of many relatives of the victims -- Nichols was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder at the federal trial, and he was spared the death penalty.
"I could hardly walk out of the courtroom in Denver -- I was devastated," said Diane Leonard, whose husband, Donald, a Secret Service agent, was killed in the bombing. "This jury understood the evidence. . . . I am so grateful these prosecutors hung in there with us to get this to trial here."
Death penalty foes cast the state trial as a search for vengeance, not justice. Over the years, many in Oklahoma lost their appetite for the $5 million trial. Public opinion surveys showed that a vast majority opposed trying Nichols again, believing that the money could be better used because Nichols was already serving a life sentence.
But Oklahoma County District Attorney Wesley Lane pushed forward, supported by many victims' families. Although he did not argue the case himself, he sat with the relatives Wednesday and held them as they received the news. Lane declined to comment, saying that a gag order was still in place.
Nichols, 49, was ultimately charged with the remaining 161 deaths, including that of a fetus. As in the federal trial, prosecutors built a circumstantial case to show that Nichols conspired with McVeigh for months to amass components for a two-ton truck bomb -- fertilizer and fuel -- and to hide them in storage sheds that they rented using aliases. They also alleged that Nichols robbed a quarry to get a detonation cord and blasting caps for the attack.
In the end, however, it was undisputed that McVeigh alone drove the Ryder truck to Oklahoma City, detonating the explosives in front of the Murrah building at the beginning of a workday. Defense attorneys argued that Nichols was set up by his old friend, for a crime McVeigh committed with others. They painted McVeigh as deceitful, someone who even had an affair with Nichols's wife. Nichols did not take the stand. He has never spoken publicly about the bombing.
Nichols's punishment for some of the other charges was announced as the verdicts were read. In the death of the fetus, the jury sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For the charge of arson, he was given 35 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. And for the conspiracy charge, was given 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Outside the courtroom, family members still raw from their losses in 1995 spoke of their relief.
"It's not about the death penalty. It's about accountability," said Shelly Thompson Fravert, who lost her mother, Virginia Thompson. "We felt our loved ones were left out of the Denver case. We didn't want them to be just a number. . . . I'll leave what happens to him now up to God."
But others clearly felt that it was about death. Asked if Nichols should receive the ultimate punishment, Dallas Davis said: "I don't think he should be able to visit with his mother and sister. I don't have the privilege of visiting with my daughter. You can draw your own conclusions."