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Context of 'October 20, 1995: Attorney General Authorizes Death Penalty against Oklahoma City Bombers'

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The Alfred P. Murrah Building after being bombed.The Alfred P. Murrah Building after being bombed. [Source: CBS News]A truck bomb destroys the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in America’s worst domestic terrorist attack. Timothy McVeigh, later convicted in the bombing, has ideological roots both in the Patriot world and among neo-Nazis like William Pierce, whose novel, The Turner Diaries (see 1978), served as a blueprint for the attack. [Washington Post, 4/20/1995; Southern Poverty Law Center, 6/2001; Clarke, 2004, pp. 127] Initially, many believe that no American set off the bomb, and suspect Islamist terrorists of actually carrying out the bombing (see 10:00 a.m. April 19, 1995 and After). Their suspicions prove groundless. Investigators will find that the bomb is constructed of some 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, carried in 20 or so blue plastic 55-gallon barrels arranged inside a rented Ryder truck (see April 15, 1995). The bomb is detonated by a slow-burning safety fuse, most likely lit by hand. The fuse is attached to a much faster-burning detonation cord (“det cord”) which ignites the fertilizer and fuel-oil mixture. [New York Times, 4/27/1995] The Murrah Federal Building houses a number of federal agencies, including offices for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF); the Social Security Administration; the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs, and Agriculture departments; and the Secret Service. [Washington Post, 4/20/1995] It encompasses an entire city block, between 5th and 4th Streets and Harvey and Robinson Streets, and features a U-shaped, indented drive on 5th that allows for quick pickup and delivery parking. The entire building’s facade on this side is made of glass, allowing passersby to see into the offices in the building, as well as into the America’s Kids day care center on the second floor, which by this time is filling with children. It is in this driveway that McVeigh parks his truck. [Serrano, 1998, pp. 99-102]
Entering the City - McVeigh drives into Oklahoma City, entering around 8:30 a.m. from his overnight stop in Ponca City, Oklahoma; the details reported of his entrance into the city vary (see 7:00 a.m. - 8:35 a.m., April 19, 1995). At 8:55 a.m., a security camera captures the Ryder truck as it heads towards downtown Oklahoma City [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] , a sighting bolstered by three people leaving the building who later say they saw the truck parked in front of the Murrah Building around this time. At 8:57, a security camera captures an image of McVeigh’s Ryder truck being parked outside the Murrah Building in a handicapped zone. One survivor of the blast, Marine recruiter Michael Norfleet, later recalls seeing the Ryder truck parked just outside the building next to the little circle drive on 5th Street leading up to the main entrance of the building. Norfleet had parked his black Ford Ranger in front of the Ryder.
McVeigh Lights Fuses - McVeigh drives the Ryder truck west past the Murrah Building on NW Fourth Street, turns north on a one-way street, and turns right on Fifth Street. He pulls the truck over and parks near the Firestone store, next to a chain-link fence. He then lights the five-minute fuses from inside the cab (see 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995), sets the parking brake, drops the key behind the seat, opens the door, locks the truck, exits, and shuts the door behind him. A man later claims to have hit his brakes to avoid someone matching McVeigh’s description as he crossed Fifth Street around 9:00 a.m. McVeigh walks quickly toward a nearby YMCA building where he has hidden his getaway car, a battered yellow Mercury Marquis (see April 13, 1995), in the adjoining alleyway, crossing Robinson Street and crossing another street to get to the alleyway. He begins to jog as he approaches his car. He later says he remembers a woman looking at him as she is walking down the steps to enter the building; he will describe her as white, in her mid-30s, with dirty blonde hair. According to McVeigh’s own recollection, he is about 20 feet into the alley when the bomb goes off. [Stickney, 1996, pp. 184-185; PBS Frontline, 1/22/1996; Serrano, 1998, pp. 158; Douglas O. Linder, 2006; The Oklahoman, 4/2009]
Truck Explodes - At 9:02 a.m., the truck explodes, destroying most of the Murrah Building and seriously damaging many nearby buildings. Eventually, it will be determined that 168 people die in the blast, including 19 children. Over 500 are injured. The children are in the second-story day care center just above the parking space where McVeigh leaves the Ryder truck. McVeigh will later tell his biographers that he is lifted off his feet by the power of the blast.
Devastation and Death - When the bomb detonates, the day care center and the children plummet into the basement. The building, constructed with large glass windows, collapses, sending a wave of flying glass shards and debris into the building and the surrounding area. The oldest victim is 73-year-old Charles Hurlbert, who has come to the Social Security office on the first floor. Hurlbert’s wife Jean, 67, also dies in the blast. The youngest victim is four-month-old Gabeon Bruce, whose mother is also in the Social Security office. One victim, Rebecca Anderson, is a nurse who runs towards the building to render assistance. She never makes it to the building; she is struck in the head by a piece of falling debris and will die in a hospital four days after the blast. Her heart and kidneys will be transplanted into survivors of the bombing. [Denver Post, 6/3/1997; New York Times, 6/3/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 153-154; Oklahoma City Journal Record, 3/29/2001] Sherri Sparks, who has friends still unaccounted for in the building, tells a reporter in the hours after the blast, “Oh, I can’t stand the thought of… those innocent children, sitting there playing, thinking they’re safe, and then this happens.” The explosion leaves a 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep crater in the street that is covered by the wreckage of the building’s upper floors. The north face of the nine-story building collapses entirely. [Washington Post, 4/20/1995; Washington Post, 4/22/1995] Mary Heath, a psychologist who works about 20 blocks from the Murrah Building, says the blast “shook the daylights out of things—it scared us to death. We felt the windows shake before we heard the noise.” In a neighboring building, a Water Resources Board meeting is just commencing; the audiotape of the meeting captures the sound of the blast (see 9:02 a.m. and After, April 19, 1995). [Washington Post, 4/20/1995; The Oklahoman, 4/2009] Norfleet, trapped in the Marine Corps office, is thrown into a wall by the explosion. His skull is fractured, and a shard of glass punctures his right eye. Three separate arteries are pierced, and Norfleet begins bleeding heavily. Two supply sergeants in the office are far less injured; Norfleet asks one, “How bad am I hurt?” and one replies, “Sir, you look really bad.” One of the two begins giving Norfleet first aid; Norfleet later recalls: “He immediately went into combat mode and started taking care of me. He laid me on a table and he started looking for bandages to administer first aid. And while I was laying on that table, I just knew that I was losing strength and that if I stayed in the building, I would die.” Norfleet wraps a shirt around his head and face to slow the bleeding, and the two sergeants help him to the stairs, through the fallen rubble, and eventually out. Norfleet will later say that he follows “a blood trail of somebody that had gone down the steps before me” to get outside, where he is quickly put into an ambulance. He loses almost half his body’s blood supply and his right eye. He will never fly again, and will soon be discharged for medical incapacity. [Serrano, 1998, pp. 161-162] Eighteen-month-old Phillip Allen, called “P.J.” by his parents, miraculously survives the blast. The floor gives way beneath him and he plunges 18 feet to land on the stomach of an adult worker on the floor below, Calvin Johnson. Landing on Johnson’s stomach saves P.J.‘s life. Johnson is knocked unconscious by the blast and by the impact of the little boy falling on him, but when he awakes, he carries the toddler to safety. P.J.‘s grandfather calls the child “Oklahoma’s miracle kid,” and media reports use the label when retelling the story of the miraculous rescue. P.J. is one of six children in the day care center to survive the blast. [Stickney, 1996, pp. 275-277] Some people later report their belief that the Murrah Building was rocked by a second explosion just moments after the first one, the second coming from a secure area managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) that illegally stored explosives. Law professor Douglas O. Linder will later write, “Both seismic evidence and witness testimony supports the ‘two blast theory.’” [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] That theory is later disputed (see After 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995).
Explosion's Effects Felt Miles Away - Buildings near the Murrah are also damaged, seven severely, including the Journal Record newspaper building, the offices of Southwestern Bell, the Water Resources Board, an Athenian restaurant, the YMCA, a post office building, and the Regency Tower Hotel. Two Water Resources Board employees and a restaurant worker are killed in the blast. The Journal Record building loses its roof. Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen later recalls, “The entire block looked like something out of war-torn Bosnia.” Every building within four blocks of the Murrah suffers some effects. A United Parcel Service truck 10 miles away has its windows shattered by the blast. Cars in parking lots around the area catch fire and burn. Millions of sheets of paper, and an innumerable number of glass shards, shower down for hundreds of feet around the building. [Stickney, 1996, pp. 28-30]
Truck Axle Crushes Nearby Car - Richard Nichols (no relation to bomber Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirator Terry Nichols), a maintenance worker standing with his wife a block and a half away from the Murrah Building, is spun around by the force of the blast. They throw open the back door of their car and begin taking their young nephew Chad Nichols out of the back seat, when Richard sees a large shaft of metal hurtling towards them. The “humongous object… spinning like a boomerang,” as Richard later describes it, hits the front of their Ford Festiva, smashing the windshield, crushing the front end, driving the rear end high into the air, and sending the entire car spinning backwards about 10 feet. Chad is not seriously injured. The metal shaft is the rear axle of the Ryder truck. Later, investigators determine that it weighs 250 pounds and was blown 575 feet from where the truck was parked. Governor Frank Keating (R-OK) points out the axle to reporters when he walks the scene a day or so later, causing some media outlets to incorrectly report that Keating “discovered” the axle. The scene will take investigators days to process for evidence. [Stickney, 1996, pp. 32; New York Times, 6/3/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 187-189]
First Responders Begin Arriving - Within minutes, survivors begin evacuating the building, and first responders appear on the scene (see 9:02 a.m. - 10:35 a.m. April 19, 1995).
McVeigh's Getaway - McVeigh flees the bomb site in his Mercury getaway car (see 9:02 a.m. and After, April 19, 1995), but is captured less than 90 minutes later (see 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995).

President Clinton declares a state of emergency for Oklahoma City. Attorney Janet Reno is at the left.President Clinton declares a state of emergency for Oklahoma City. Attorney Janet Reno is at the left. [Source: The Oklahoman]In a live television press conference, President Clinton addresses the nation regarding the morning’s bombing in Oklahoma City (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). He says: “The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens. It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it. And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards. I have met with our team which we assembled to deal with this bombing, and I have determined to take the following steps to assure the strongest response to this situation. First, I have deployed a crisis management under the leadership of the FBI (see After 9:02 a.m., April 19, 1995), working with the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, military and local authorities. We are sending the world’s finest investigators to solve these murders. Second, I have declared an emergency in Oklahoma City. And at my direction, James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is now on his way there to make sure we do everything we can to help the people of Oklahoma deal with the tragedy. Third, we are taking every precaution to reassure and to protect people who work in or live near other federal facilities. Let there be no room for doubt. We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain, and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers. Finally, let me say that I ask all Americans tonight to pray, to pray for the people who have lost their lives, to pray for the families and the friends of the dead and the wounded, to pray for the people of Oklahoma City. May God’s grace be with them. Meanwhile, we will be about our work. Thank you.” Clinton asks Americans to pray for the victims. Attorney General Janet Reno follows Clinton in the conference, and says, “The death penalty is available and we will seek it.” She refuses to speculate on whether the date of the bombing—the two-year anniversary of the Branch Davidian tragedy (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After)—is a coincidence or something more. “We are pursuing all leads,” she says. “This has been a tragic and heartbreaking day.… We cannot tell you how long it will be before we can say with certainty what occurred and who is responsible but we will find the perpetrators and we will bring them to justice.” At another time during the same day, Clinton tells a Des Moines reporter: “I was sick all day long. All of us have been looking at the scene where those children were taken out, and all of us were seeing our own children there. This is an awful, awful thing.” [PBS, 4/19/1995; Los Angeles Times, 4/20/1995; Associated Press, 4/20/1995; Serrano, 1998, pp. 187] Clinton press secretary Michael “Mack” McCurry later credits Clinton for putting an end to what he will call “the anti-Arab hysteria that almost swept this country. Because remember, in the first several hours, everyone was pointing fingers at Arab terrorists (see 10:00 a.m. April 19, 1995 and After and April 19, 1995), which turned out to be obviously wrong.” [PBS Frontline, 2000]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Lee Witt, Michael (“Mack”) McCurry, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, US Department of Justice, Janet Reno

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Federal prosecutors formally notify Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, April 21, 1995, and April 24, 1995) that they intend to seek the death penalty against him in his upcoming trial. Prosecutors send a letter to McVeigh’s lead lawyer, Stephen Jones, advising that McVeigh will be indicted before August 11 with “one or more crimes potentially punishable by death.” The letter is signed by Patrick M. Ryan, the US Attorney in Oklahoma City. Government officials, including President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, have said they would press for the death penalty against the person or persons responsible for the bombing (see 4:00 p.m., April 19, 1995 and April 22, 1995). The announcement ends speculation that the prosecution might take the death penalty off the table if McVeigh pleads guilty and cooperates with the investigation. While the prosecutors can seek the death penalty, only the trial jury can impose it, if it so chooses. Jones calls the decision to seek the death penalty a “charade,” saying that the decision was made by Clinton and Reno months ago. In a response to Ryan, Jones writes, “For us to reasonably believe that any type of fair review is to be conducted would require us to accept that you, as a nominee of the president for the position you hold, and the attorney general’s Capital Review Committee, appointed by Ms. Reno, would reach a decision and recommendation which overrides the president and the attorney general’s own public commitment.” Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to invoke the death penalty against McVeigh’s accused co-conspirator, Terry Nichols (see March 1995, April 16-17, 1995, 5:00 a.m. April 18, 1995, 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995, and June 23, 1995). Nichols’s attorney Michael Tigar says he is preparing his defense as if it will be a death-penalty case. [New York Times, 7/12/1995] Two days later, defense lawyers for Nichols inform reporters that the federal government will also seek the death penalty against Nichols. [New York Times, 7/14/1995]

Entity Tags: Terry Lynn Nichols, Janet Reno, Michael E. Tigar, Stephen Jones, Timothy James McVeigh, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Patrick M. Ryan

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A federal grand jury indicts Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995) on 11 counts of murder and conspiracy. Neither McVeigh nor Nichols are present during the hearing. The grand jury is only empowered to bring federal charges; the eight murder charges are in regards to the eight federal agents slain in the bombing: 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. Both Nichols and McVeigh are expected to face 160 counts of murder brought by the state of Oklahoma; both will plead not guilty to all counts of the indictment (see August 15, 1995). The indictment levels the following charges:
bullet on September 30, 1994, McVeigh and Nichols purchased 40 50-pound bags of ammonium nitrate (2,000 pounds in total, or one ton) in McPherson, Kansas, under the alias “Mike Havens” (see September 30, 1994);
bullet on October 1, 1994, McVeigh and Nichols stole explosives from a storage locker in Marion, Kansas (the actual date of the theft is October 3—see October 3, 1994);
bullet on October 3-4, 1994, McVeigh and Nichols transported the stolen explosives to Kingman, Arizona, and stored them in a rented storage unit (see October 4 - Late October, 1994);
bullet on October 18, 1994, McVeigh and Nichols bought another ton of ammonium nitrate in McPherson, Kansas, again using the “Mike Havens” alias (see October 18, 1994);
bullet in October 1994, McVeigh and Nichols planned the robbery of a firearms dealer in Arkansas as a means to finance the bombing, and on November 5 they “caused” firearms, ammunition, coins, cash, precious metals, and other items to be stolen from gun dealer Roger Moore (see November 5, 1994);
bullet on December 16, 1994, McVeigh drove with Michael Fortier to Oklahoma City and identified the Murrah Federal Building as the target of the upcoming bombing (see December 16, 1994 and After);
bullet in March 1995 McVeigh obtained a driver’s license in the name of “Robert Kling,” bearing a date of birth of April 19, 1972 (see Mid-March, 1995);
bullet on April 14, 1995, McVeigh bought a 1977 Mercury Marquis in Junction City, Kansas, called Nichols in Herington, Kansas, used the “Kling” alias to set up the rental of a Ryder truck capable of transporting 5,000 pounds of cargo, and rented a room in Junction City (see April 13, 1995);
bullet on April 15, 1995, McVeigh put down a deposit on a rental truck under the name of “Robert Kling” (see April 15, 1995);
bullet on April 17, 1995, McVeigh took possession of the rental truck in Junction City (see 3:00 - 5:00 p.m. April 17, 1995);
bullet on April 18, 1995, at Geary Lake State Park in Kansas, McVeigh and Nichols constructed the truck bomb using barrels filled with ammonium nitrate, fuel, and other explosives, and placed the cargo in the compartment of the Ryder truck (see 5:00 a.m. April 18, 1995 and 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995);
bullet on April 19, 1995, McVeigh parked the truck bomb directly outside the Murrah Building during regular business hours; and
bullet on April 19, 1995, McVeigh “caused the truck bomb to explode” (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995).
The indictment accuses McVeigh and Nichols of plotting the bombing “with others unknown to the Grand Jury.” It does not mention the person identified earlier as “John Doe No. 2” (see June 14, 1995). The grand jury says it is confident others, as yet unidentified, also participated in the plot. Lead prosecutor Joseph Hartzler says: “The indictment mentions unknown co-conspirators. We will try to determine if there are others who aided and abetted this crime.” After the indictments are handed down, Attorney General Janet Reno says: “We will pursue every lead based on the evidence.… [M]ost of these leads have been pursued and exhausted.… [W]e have charged everyone involved that we have evidence of at this point.” Prosecutors say that while others may well have been involved, the plot was closely held between McVeigh and Nichols. US Attorney Patrick Ryan has already announced he will seek the death penalty against both McVeigh and Nichols (see July 11-13, 1995), a decision supported by Reno (see 4:00 p.m., April 19, 1995). A third conspirator, Michael Fortier, has pled guilty to lesser crimes regarding his involvement; Fortier has testified against McVeigh and Nichols in return for the lesser charges (see May 19, 1995 and August 8, 1995), and defense lawyers are expected to assail Fortier’s credibility during the trials (see April 19, 1995 and After, April 23 - May 6, 1995, and May 8, 1995). Nichols’s lawyer Michael Tigar says, “Terry Nichols is not guilty of the allegations of which he is charged,” calls the case against his client “flimsy” and “irresponsible,” and accuses prosecutors of attempting to try his client “in the national media.” Periodically, Tigar holds up hand-lettered signs reading, among other messages, “Terry Nichols Wasn’t There” and “A Fair Trial in a Fair Forum.” Prosecutors have dropped all charges against Nichols’s brother James Nichols, who was indicted on three related explosive charges (see December 22 or 23, 1988, April 25, 1995, and May 11, 1995). US Attorney Saul A. Green says that “additional investigation failed to corroborate some of the important evidence on which the government initially relied.” [Washington Post, 8/11/1995; New York Times, 8/11/1995; Stickney, 1996, pp. 189-191; Mickolus and Simmons, 6/1997, pp. 811; Washington Post, 12/24/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 245; Douglas O. Linder, 2001] McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, tells reporters after the hearing that he has been in contact with a man who, he says, told the government early in the fall of 1994 of plans to blow up federal buildings. This man, Jones says, was given a “letter of immunity” by the authorities in exchange for information involving a trip he had taken to Kingman, Arizona, Fortier’s hometown, and for information about his discussions with potential bombers whom, Jones says, the man had described as either “Latin American or Arab.” Jones refuses to identify the person to whom he is referring. [New York Times, 8/11/1995]

Entity Tags: Terry Lynn Nichols, Timothy James McVeigh, Geary State Fishing Lake And Wildlife Area, Cynthia Campbell-Brown, Alan Whicher, Stephen Jones, Donald Leonard, Claude Madearis, Roger E. (“Bob”) Moore, Saul A. Green, Paul Broxterman, Paul Douglas Ice, Janet Reno, James Nichols, Kenneth McCullough, Joseph H. Hartzler, Michael Joseph Fortier, Patrick M. Ryan, Mickey Maroney, Michael E. Tigar

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

In a letter to US Attorney Patrick Ryan, Attorney General Janet Reno authorizes prosecutors to seek the death penalty against indicted Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, 4:00 p.m., April 19, 1995, July 11-13, 1995, and August 10, 1995). The prosecutors promptly inform the federal court in Oklahoma City that they will do just that. Reno overrides protests from defense lawyers asking her to disqualify herself from the proceedings; McVeigh’s lawyer, Stephen Jones, told reporters that Reno and President Clinton both said “they would seek the death penalty before they even knew who the defendants were. We will mount our attack on the obvious prejudgment of the case.” Ryan says the prosecution will seek the death penalty on four of the counts lodged against McVeigh and Nichols: first-degree murder, conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction with death resulting, using an explosive to destroy government property with death resulting, and using a weapon of mass destruction with death resulting. He says “aggravating factors” include the maiming, disfigurement, and other injuries inflicted on many individuals and the involvement of both defendants in “acts of burglary, robbery, and theft to finance and otherwise facilitate” the bombing. Governor Frank Keating (R-OK) approves of the decision, and recently said in an interview that it was not at all unusual “to see the president and the attorney general express their outrage” when they did. “This was an enormous national tragedy of titanic proportions,” Keating said. “The question is, are these [McVeigh and Nichols] the people who did it? If not, we need to find those who did.… But we want whoever did this to be prosecuted, convicted, and executed.” [New York Times, 8/21/1995; Washington Post, 10/21/1995; Douglas O. Linder, 2001] Jones refused to take part in the panel discussions over the use of the death penalty, calling them a fraud and a sham, and saying that the process should not have been conducted by the Justice Department. [Stickney, 1996, pp. 253]

Entity Tags: Timothy James McVeigh, Janet Reno, Frank Keating, Patrick M. Ryan, Terry Lynn Nichols, US Department of Justice, Stephen Jones

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Lawyers for the accused Oklahoma City bombers (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, July 11-13, 1995, and August 10, 1995) assail the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty against their clients. They say that Attorney General Janet Reno, who made the final decision to seek the execution of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols if they are convicted (see October 20, 1995), ignored Justice Department procedures in making that decision. “The government cannot simply ignore its own rules when it decides who lives or dies,” says McVeigh’s lead lawyer, Stephen Jones. Jones accuses Reno of “categorical prejudgment” of the death penalty. Nichols’s lead lawyer, Michael Tigar, calls Reno’s decision “two-faced.” Both note that within hours of the bombing, Reno announced the government would seek to execute whoever carried out the attack (see 4:00 p.m., April 19, 1995 and April 22, 1995); rules adopted in February 1996 allow the attorney general to seek the death penalty in federal cases only after informing defense lawyers and going through a review by an in-house Death Penalty Committee. US Attorney Sean Connelly counters that when Reno announced that “she would prosecute [the bombing] to the fullest extent possible, she was not acting as a judge, she was acting as a law enforcement officer.” Defense lawyers also argue that the 1994 federal death penalty statutes are unconstitutional. Connelly retorts, “If the death penalty is not appropriate in this case, it would be hard to imagine any case where it would be.” [New York Times, 5/2/1996]

Entity Tags: Sean Connelly, Janet Reno, Michael E. Tigar, Terry Lynn Nichols, Timothy James McVeigh, US Department of Justice, Stephen Jones

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

After two days of deliberations and testimony, the jury in the trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997) deadlocks on whether Nichols should be sentenced to death (see October 20, 1995). The task of sentencing Nichols now falls to US District Judge Richard Matsch, who excuses the jury and begins considering the sentencing himself. Matsch has the option of sentencing Nichols to life in prison, or to a lesser term. Both Nichols and his partner, convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997), face murder charges in the state of Oklahoma. The prosecution put on witnesses who provided graphic, emotional testimony about the carnage and personal losses caused by the blast, while the defense painted Nichols as a loving family man who became caught up in a conspiracy he could not control. Prosecutors, already displeased by the jury’s failure to find Nichols guilty of first-degree murder, are further dismayed by the jury’s actions. Some relatives of the bombing victims, many of whom have attended every day of the trial, leave the courtroom in tears. Jury forewoman Niki Deutchman says: “I think he was building a life; he may also have been building a bomb. I don’t know.… The government wasn’t able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a whole lot of the evidence. The government didn’t do a good job of proving Terry Nichols was greatly involved in this.” She says some jurors did not believe that Nichols was an equal partner in the bombing with McVeigh, and some believe his role to be peripheral at best. The prosecution’s case, Deutchman says, had large holes which some jurors believe preclude a death sentence. “There were a lot of specific acts [alleged by the government] that I had doubts about,” she says. The FBI came across as “arrogant” and “sloppy” in its investigation, Deutchman says, and notes: “I think the government’s attitude… is part of where all this comes from in the first place. I think maybe it’s time the government be more respectful… and not with the attitude that we know and you don’t, we have the power and you don’t.” Other jurors cite the failure of FBI agents to tape-record their initial interrogation of Nichols (see 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995) as one of many troublesome acts carried out by law enforcement officials. Diane Leonard, who lost her husband in the bombing, expresses her horror at the failure to impose the death sentence, saying: “At the verdict, I felt like a knife was piercing my chest. In any civilized society, death is the only appropriate punishment for such an horrendous act.” Other relatives of the victims call the jury inept and unfair. Matsch praises the jury, saying: “You worked at it; there’s no question about it. The result here will be subject to comment by many. There will be some who will criticize it. There will be some who praise it. You know that you are answerable to no one for your decisions.” Nichols’s lead attorney, Michael Tigar, says, “The jury has spoken, and the judge in summarizing this proceeding has given everybody an invaluable object lesson on how the American justice system works.” Denver lawyer Scott Robinson, who has attended the trial as a media commentator, reminds onlookers: “You can make any calculation you want; Terry Nichols is not going home any time soon or ever. I call it a Methuselah sentence. Only Methuselah would live to see the light of day.… It’s not a crushing defeat for the prosecution. If people view it as that, shame on them.” [Washington Post, 1/8/1997; New York Times, 12/30/1997; New York Times, 1/2/1998; Boston Globe, 1/8/1998; New York Times, 1/8/1998; Douglas O. Linder, 2001]
Analysts, Oklahoma Governor Weigh In - Denver attorney Andrew Cohen, like Robinson and other legal analysts, says the outcome is understandable. “You had far less evidence against Nichols than you had against McVeigh and I think that’s the ultimate truth about this Nichols trial,” he says. “I think that justice was served in the first trial and, I think, that the result of this Nichols trial, when the judge sentences Nichols, will be about as close to justice as I can imagine.” Law professor Christopher Mueller notes that Nichols wasn’t in Oklahoma City when the bomb was detonated (see March 1995 and April 16-17, 1995), and defense lawyers were skillful in casting doubt on whether Nichols actually helped McVeigh assemble the bomb (see April 15-16, 1995, April 16-17, 1995, Late Evening, April 17, 1995, 5:00 a.m. April 18, 1995, and 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995)). “A verdict of death for Timothy McVeigh and a verdict of a long prison term for Terry Nichols is a just outcome,” he says. Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating is sharply critical of the failure to sentence Nichols to death. “This was the most monstrous act of terrorism ever in the history of the United States,” he says. “The people who did this deserve the death sentence and certainly life in prison—and that hasn’t happened here yet.” Vera Chubb, who served on McVeigh’s jury, is dismayed by the outcome. “They [McVeigh and Nichols] had two years to plan this. If I knew of a friend or anyone that I thought was going to do this horrendous crime, I would have said something,” she says. “I was completely dismayed by this jury.” [Associated Press, 1/11/1998] Keating adds that he is “disappointed with the jury. They were expected to make this decision. This is what juries are supposed to do, and they walked away from it. I’m cautiously optimistic that Judge Matsch, who is a tough, no-nonsense, fact-filled, moral judge will make a decision to impose a life sentence on Nichols. We do have a backup prosecution in Oklahoma which, of course, I support, and we’ll wait and watch and see what happens.” [New York Times, 1/8/1998]

Entity Tags: Frank Keating, Christopher Mueller, Andrew Cohen, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Diane Leonard, Vera Chubb, Terry Lynn Nichols, Timothy James McVeigh, Richard P. Matsch, Scott Robinson, Michael E. Tigar, Niki Deutchman

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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