Nichols faces state trial for '95 bombing

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombing conspirator who is serving life without parole in federal prison, must stand trial in state court on 160 counts of first-degree murder that could bring the death penalty, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision by District Judge Allen McCall essentially means Nichols will be tried again for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people and injured hundreds of others.

Paul Howell, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, said he was delighted with the decision: "It's something that needs to be done."

Bombing survivor Paul Heath said justice demands a trial.

"There's no question that justice has not been meted out," Heath said. "At this point, 160 deaths haven't been adjudicated."

Nichols, 48, will be arraigned next Tuesday.

Bombing mastermind Timothy McVeigh was convicted of murder after a federal trial, and he was executed in June 2001.

The bespectacled Nichols was convicted in 1997 of federal conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter charges. The jury deadlocked over whether to give him the death penalty for conspiracy, so the sentence fell to the judge, who under law could impose no more than life without parole.

The federal manslaughter charges were for the deaths of eight law enforcement officers. The state charges cover all other bombing victims, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already turned down an appeal from Nichols arguing that a state trial amounts to double jeopardy.

Prosecutors say a state conviction is needed to guard against the chance Nichols might someday successfully appeal his federal conviction and gain freedom. They have said they will seek the death penalty.

The preliminary hearing was effectively a recap of the government's case against McVeigh and Nichols. Among the evidence were statements Nichols made to the FBI and a receipt for a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer prosecutors say Nichols purchased from a Kansas co-op under a false name.

Prosecutors contend the bombing was a twisted attempt at revenge against the government for the deadly siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier.

Series of robberies

They said Army buddies Nichols and McVeigh worked side by side preparing the 4,000-pound fuel-and-fertilizer bomb, and that Nichols participated in a series of robberies to raise money to carry out the bombing.

Nichols was at home in Herington, Kan., the day of the explosion, but prosecutors say he helped McVeigh pack the bomb inside the Ryder truck a day earlier and helped stash his friend's getaway car.

The prosecution's star witness, Michael Fortier, took the stand again to describe how McVeigh and Nichols detonated explosives in the Arizona desert and experimented with ingredients that were later used in the bombing.

According to Fortier, who is serving a 12-year sentence for failing to notify authorities of the bomb plot, McVeigh said Nichols was deeply involved in the plot.

Nichols also called then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker's office two days before the bombing to complain about the deadly end of the Branch Davidian standoff, according to an aide to the former Kansas lawmaker.

"He was very stern and told us about his thinking on the matter," Lee Ellen Alexander testified.

Legal analysts say a state trial may be hampered by some of the same legal issues that delayed the start of the preliminary hearing for more than three years.

For one thing, prosecutors must overcome defense claims that an impartial jury cannot be found in Oklahoma that will give Nichols a fair trial.

The hearing could also be complicated by revelations, first reported by The Associated Press, that the Justice Department received a letter before McVeigh's execution suggesting a key prosecution witness had given false testimony.

Nichols served with McVeigh at Fort Riley, Kan., and left in 1989 on a hardship discharge. He renounced his right to vote in 1992, then went on to work as a hired ranch hand and dealer in military surplus goods.

During his initial interrogation by police, Nichols said he and McVeigh learned how to make bombs while they were selling military surplus items at gun shows around the country in 1994 and 1995.

He said that he and McVeigh were in Oklahoma City three days before the bombing and that he loaned McVeigh his pickup truck the day before the attack.

Nichols at one point claimed he did not call authorities about the bomb plot because he didn't think McVeigh was serious and believed he couldn't carry out the attack without help.

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