Terry L. Nichols, twice convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing, was spared the death penalty again Friday night, this time by a state jury that could not agree on the ultimate punishment after 19 hours of deliberations.
The same jury convicted Nichols, 49, of 161 counts of murder last month. The father of three will be sentenced by Judge Steven Taylor on Aug. 7. The judge can sentence him to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole -- but cannot sentence him to death.
"Terry Nichols asked for you all to keep in their prayers everyone who has suffered a loss, and hope that all people can recover from the hate and the fear that has resulted from the Oklahoma City bombing," Nichols's attorney, Brian Hermanson, told reporters after the verdict.
The penalty verdict is a major blow to state prosecutors who aggressively sought to try Nichols after he was spared the death penalty in 1997, when a federal jury similarly deadlocked.
Nichols and his former Army buddy Timothy J. McVeigh were convicted in federal court in Denver for the deaths of the eight federal law enforcement officials who died in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building that killed 168 people.
McVeigh has already been executed for the crime, but -- to the disappointment of many the relatives of the victims -- Nichols was convicted of manslaughter at the federal trial instead of murder. He was charged in the state case with the other 161 deaths, which included an unborn child. The trial was moved about 130 miles south of Oklahoma City to find an impartial jury pool.
But not everyone had the stomach for another trial. Because Nichols is already serving a federal life term for the crime, the state prosecution was controversial, with a majority of Oklahomans saying the $5 million cost of a trial was money that could be better used.
The judge released the 12 jurors Friday evening after jury foreman Peter E. Mills wrote, "The jury is still deadlocked on sentencing.
We will not be able to reach an agreement."
Mills told Taylor that further deliberations would be futile.
Many of the relatives had said after his conviction last month that all they ever wanted was for Nichols to be accountable for the deaths of their loved ones -- death penalty or not. But clearly, some wanted more. "Someday I hope he burns in hell for it. . . . We have a real problem in our justice system and this shows it," Darlene Welch, whose niece, Ashley Eckles, 4, died in the attack, told the Oklahoman newspaper Web site after the deadlock was announced.
To try to persuade the jurors that Nichols deserved death, prosecutors presented a week of heart-wrenching testimony in the penalty phase from relatives of the victims who told of their loss of children, and mothers and siblings. At one point, Nichols -- usually stoic -- wiped tears from his eyes.
Prosecutors essentially put on the same case as in this federal trial-showing that Nichols helped McVeigh accumulate the components for the 2-ton bomb. They said the men were fueled by a hatred of the federal government.
But Nichols was not in Oklahoma City when McVeigh detonated the truck bomb, and there was some evidence presented that Nichols may have wanted out of the conspiracy.
During closing arguments in the sentencing phase, prosecutor Suzanne Lister tried to appeal to the jurors emotionally, saying: "Think about the number of dreams, the number of plans and the number of loved ones that Terry Nichols destroyed. . . . Think of them as individual human beings."
The defense tried to show that Nichols's life was worth saving, by calling his two ex-wives, his family and prison guards to extol his virtues. His lawyers maintained that Nichols had become a religious person since being incarcerated.
"This case is about one person, this man, Terry Lynn Nichols, and whether you will take his life," attorney Creekmore Wallace said. "It's about whether you will kill Terry Lynn Nichols, the man."