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Nichols convicted of murder for bombing

Thursday, May 27, 2004

McALESTER, Okla. -- Nearly a decade after the Oklahoma City bombing, Terry Nichols was found guilty of 161 state murder charges Wednesday for helping carry out what was then the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. He could get the death sentence he escaped when he was convicted in federal court in the 1990s.

The verdicts came after only five hours of deliberations. Nichols was stone-faced and stared straight ahead at the judge as the verdicts were read, while his attorneys bowed their heads and clenched their hands together.

Prosecutors beamed, and family members hugged and congratulated them.

"I'm just so thrilled for these families," said a tearful Diane Leonard, whose husband died in the bombing. "After nine years, the families who lost loved ones finally have justice."

Oklahoma prosecutors brought the case with the goal of finally winning a death sentence against Nichols, who is serving a life term on federal charges in the 1995 bombing. The same 12-member jury will now determine Nichols' fate on the state charges: life in prison or death by injection. The penalty phase will begin Tuesday and is expected to last four to six weeks.

Prosecutors contended Nichols worked hand in hand with former Army buddy Timothy McVeigh to acquire the ingredients and build the fuel-and-fertilizer bomb in a twisted plot to avenge the government siege in Waco, Texas, that left about 80 people dead exactly two years earlier.

The April 19, 1995, blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people. McVeigh was executed in June 2001, and until now was the only person convicted of murder in the bombing.

Nichols was convicted in federal court in 1997 of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of eight law officers. Oklahoma prosecutors later charged Nichols with the deaths of the 160 other victims and one victim's fetus. Nichols also was found guilty of first-degree arson and conspiracy.

"He's responsible for everything. We'll take care of him one way or another," said Doris Delman, who lost her daughter, Terry Rees, in the bombing.

Prosecutors brought a mountain of circumstantial evidence during a two-month trial that included testimony from about 250 witnesses. They said Nichols bought the explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer used in the bombing and stole detonation cord, blasting caps and other explosives.

The defense contended that others helped McVeigh carry out the bombing and that Nichols was the fall guy for a wider conspiracy.

Witnesses testified that they saw McVeigh with others, including a stocky, dark-haired man depicted in an FBI sketch and known only as John Doe No. 2, in the weeks before the bombing. Authorities later concluded that the mystery man was actually an Army private who had nothing to do with the bombing.

"This is a case about manipulation, betrayal and overreaching," defense attorney Barbara Bergman said in closing arguments. "People who are still unknown assisted Timothy McVeigh."

The defense declined comment after the verdict, citing a gag order.

"As much as I am chomping at the bit, I am keeping my mouth shut," said prosecutor Wes Lane.

Prosecutors say McVeigh and Nichols began acquiring the key ingredients for the bomb seven months before the blast, then met at a park near Junction City, Kan., to pack it inside a Ryder truck on April 18, 1995. Nichols was at his home in Kansas 200 miles away when the bomb went off.

Defense lawyers had planned on bringing up evidence that a shadowy group of conspirators, including members a white supremacist gang, helped McVeigh with the bombing. But Judge Steven Taylor refused to allow that evidence, saying the defense never showed that such people made any overt acts to further the bomb plot.

Taylor earlier moved the trial 130 miles from Oklahoma City to McAlester because of the difficulty in finding an impartial jury in the city where passions still run high over the bombing.

A total of 151 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution over 29 days of testimony that included several gruesome and tearful descriptions of the bombing.

The state's star witness was Michael Fortier, who is serving a 12-year sentence for knowing about the plot and not telling authorities.

Fortier, a close friend of McVeigh's, said McVeigh told him Nichols was deeply involved in the bomb plot and Nichols helped gather components, including the fertilizer that was mixed with high-octane fuel in the homemade bomb.

A receipt for the purchase of 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer was discovered in Nichols' home by FBI agents three days after the bombing.

Fortier said McVeigh and Nichols also burglarized a Kansas rock quarry near Nichols' home in Herington, Kan., and stole the detonation cord and blasting caps. In addition, prosecutors alleged that Nichols robbed a gun collector to finance the bomb plot.

But there were no witnesses who identified Nichols as the man who bought fertilizer, stole the explosives or committed the robbery. Prosecutors linked Nichols to the explosives theft through forensic evidence from a broken padlock and said gold coins and weapons from the gun collector were found at his home.

The short deliberations contrasted with the federal trial in which jurors deliberated for 41 hours over six days.

"I think it goes to the strength of the evidence and the incredible closing arguments by the prosecution," said Leonard, whose husband, Secret Service agent Don Leonard, died in the blast.

Nichols is still a federal prisoner, and Oklahoma and the government would need to hold discussions on the ultimate custody after the sentencing hearing is complete.


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