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Context of 'December 23, 1997: Oklahoma City Bomb Conspirator Convicted of Conspiracy, Manslaughter'

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The federal trial of Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and August 10, 1995) begins. As with Nichols’s accused co-conspirator Timothy McVeigh, recently convicted of murder and conspiracy surrounding the bombing (see June 2, 1997), the trial takes place in Denver, and is presided over by Judge Richard P. Matsch. Nichols faces the same eight counts of murdering federal officials and three counts of conspiracy that McVeigh was convicted of, and like McVeigh, he faces the death penalty if convicted. [New York Times, 11/4/1997; Douglas O. Linder, 2001] The jury consists of seven women and five men. It includes two bus drivers; a day-care worker; a bank clerk; a soda machine installer; a telemarketer; a loading-dock worker; a maintenance employee; an obstetrics nurse; a remedial reading tutor; a contract seamstress, whose husband is a corrections officer; and a geophysicist. Two members of the jury are African-American. As with the McVeigh jurors, their identities are concealed. Legal analysts say there is far less direct evidence of Nichols’s guilt than existed to use against McVeigh. [Washington Post, 10/31/1997; Fox News, 4/13/2005] Prosecutors tell the jury that Nichols worked “side by side” with McVeigh to build the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building. For his part, Nichols’s lawyer Michael E. Tigar says Nichols had nothing to do with the bomb plot, and is a victim of McVeigh’s deceit and a web of misleading circumstantial evidence. Lead prosecutor Larry Mackey (see October 31, 1997) says that the deceit was on the part of Nichols. Mackey acknowledges that Nichols was at his Herington, Kansas, home on the morning of the bombing: “Terry Nichols had planned it just that way,” he says. But Nichols had been involved in every aspect of building the bomb and plotting the attack. The prosecution’s case is far broader in its scope than the more narrowly focused case against McVeigh (see August 29, 1997). Tigar indicates that he plans to challenge what he calls the “junk science” used by the prosecution to forensically prove Nichols’s involvement in building the bomb. [New York Times, 11/4/1997]

Entity Tags: Timothy James McVeigh, Michael E. Tigar, Larry A. Mackey, Richard P. Matsch, Terry Lynn Nichols

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Accused Oklahoma City conspirator Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and December 15-16, 1997) is convicted of one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. He is found not guilty of use of a weapon of mass destruction (see April 16-17, 1995), and of using an explosive, as well as the more serious charges of first-degree and second-degree murder. The jury took 41 hours over six days to decide Nichols’s fate (see December 16-18, 1997). By rejecting the murder charges in the deaths of eight federal law-enforcement officials, the jury concludes that Nichols did not provably intend to kill the people inside the Murrah building. Observers and researchers such as law professor Douglas O. Linder will later conclude that the jury believed the defense’s contention that Nichols had withdrawn from the bombing plot (see March 1995 and March 31 - April 12, 1995), and was probably swayed by Nichols’s decision to stay home on the day of the bombing instead of joining convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City (see June 2, 1997) at the bomb site. The jury may also have been moved by Nichols’s show of emotion during the trial; unlike the stoic McVeigh, Nichols broke down and wept during several moments in the proceedings. Legal analysts say the split verdict is in part because of a much more effective defense (see December 2, 1997) than that presented by Nichols’s co-conspirator, McVeigh (see August 14-27, 1997), who was sentenced to death for carrying out the bombing (see June 2, 1997). Kentucky defense lawyer Kevin McNally says of the verdicts: “[They mean] he had a much less culpable state of mind regarding the homicides. To the jury, he engaged in certain actions that were reckless, but it wasn’t a premeditated killing.” Former federal prosecutor Marvin L. Rudnick says the jury “probably compromised” on the involuntary manslaughter verdicts. Lead prosecutor Larry Mackey says: “The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict in its entirety. We are prepared to go forward now with the penalty phase.” Nichols’s lead attorney, Michael Tigar, immediately files an appeal and says he will challenge any attempt by the jury to sentence Nichols to death. However, analysts feel that Nichols will escape execution. Denver attorney Andrew Cohen says: “I would be very surprised if the jury sentenced Nichols to death. They distinguished in their own minds what both men did.” Both McVeigh and Nichols face 160 counts of murder in an Oklahoma state court. [New York Times, 12/23/1997; Washington Post, 12/24/1997; New York Times, 12/24/1997; Douglas O. Linder, 2001; Indianapolis Star, 2003; Douglas O. Linder, 2006] Under federal law, a conviction of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction can lead to the death penalty. The law is only three years old and has never been used. This death penalty provision was passed by Congress in 1994 after the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York (see February 26, 1993). [New York Times, 12/25/1997]
Mixed Reactions - Predictably, reactions regarding the verdict are mixed. Claudia Denny, whose two children were seriously injured in the blast, says, “We’re all disappointed, but we can live with it.” She says she would have preferred murder convictions, but “one more terrorist is off the street.… The important thing to us now is our children. This doesn’t change that. It doesn’t matter.” Bud Welch, who lost his daughter in the bombing, says that the involuntary manslaughter convictions were inappropriate because that charge is what people get “for running a stoplight” and killing someone with a car. Diane Leonard, whose husband was one of the eight law enforcement agents killed, calls the verdict “a slap in the face.” Marsha Knight, whose daughter was one of the 160 civilians killed in the blast, says: “He conspired to build the bomb. What the hell did they think he was going to do with it?” [New York Times, 12/24/1997; Washington Post, 12/24/1997] President Clinton says the convictions of McVeigh and Nichols “should offer a measure of comfort” to the relatives of the victims. But, he adds, “I know that no verdict in a court of law can ease the loss of a loved one.” [New York Times, 12/23/1997]
Judge Offers Leniency, Nichols Turns Down Offer - Judge Richard Matsch later tells Nichols he will consider some leniency in sentencing him to prison if he cooperates in helping the government learn more about the bombing conspiracy. Nichols rejects the offer. [Indianapolis Star, 2003]

Entity Tags: Andrew Cohen, Kevin McNally, Bud Welch, Douglas O. Linder, Claudia Denny, Diane Leonard, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Marvin L. Rudnick, Timothy James McVeigh, Marsha Knight, Michael E. Tigar, Terry Lynn Nichols, Richard P. Matsch, Larry A. Mackey

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997 and June 4, 1998) asks a federal appeals court in Denver for a new trial, contending that Judge Richard P. Matsch, who presided over his trial, made a number of reversible errors in both the trial and sentencing. Nichols’s co-conspirator Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997) has also asked for a new trial (see January 16, 1998), a request that was denied (see September 8, 1998). Nichols’s legal team, Michael Tigar, Susan L. Foreman, and Adam Thurschwell, argue that Matsch erred in the instructions he gave the jurors, in the testimony he permitted, and in his interpretation of federal sentencing guidelines. According to Nichols’s lawyers, Matsch erred when he told the jury that Nichols’s responsibility for the deaths of people killed as a result of the bombing conspiracy (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995) did not depend on proof that Nichols intended to kill anyone. An intent to kill, Nichols’s lawyers contend, is a necessary element in the offense. The jurors who convicted Nichols of conspiracy acquitted him of blowing up the building and of first- or second-degree murder in the deaths of the officers. They also contend that Nichols should have been sentenced under federal guidelines for arson and property damage, not first-degree murder, and that the restitution order of $14.5 million is punitive. [New York Times, 11/22/1998]

Entity Tags: Richard P. Matsch, Adam Thurschwell, Susan L. Foreman, Michael E. Tigar, Timothy James McVeigh, Terry Lynn Nichols

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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