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U.S.: End in Sight For Oklahoma City Bombing Trials

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 30 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Government has successfully concluded the prosecution of two Americans charged in the worst act of domestic terrorism in the nation's history -- the April 1995 bombing of a government office building in the midwestern state of Oklahoma that killed 168 men, women and children.

All that remains now is for a jury sitting in the U.S. District Court in the city of Denver to decide whether the second of the two men charged with the crime will be executed or sent to prison for the rest of his life. That decision could come today.

Just before Christmas, the jury convicted defendant Terry Nichols of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in the bombing. However, the jury found Nichols innocent of using a truck bomb to kill and destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City, the state capital.

He was also found innocent of murder. The guilty verdict on the charge of involuntary manslaughter means the jury believed that people died because of what Nichols did, but also that he did not set out to kill anyone.

Last June, a different jury in Denver found Timothy McVeigh guilty of conspiracy and murder charges for the same crimes and sentenced him to death by lethal injection. His appeal is pending. Both trials were moved to Denver to ensure that the defendants received fair trials.

If the jury can't decide how to punish Nichols, it will be up to U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch to decide on a lesser sentence.

It took the jury a total of 41 hours over six days to return the verdict against Nichols. Legal experts say the verdict was a compromise that indicated the jury did not accept the government's contention that Nichols and McVeigh were equal partners in the bombing.

Journalists covering the trial said the Nichols verdict shocked relatives of victims and survivors because only McVeigh was held fully accountable for his role in the truck bombing, even though the government presented voluminous evidence that Nichols and McVeigh worked closely together to plan and carry out the attack.

The government said the two men were motivated by a hatred of the federal government in Washington. The two had ties to underground paramilitary groups called militias.

Experts on the militia movement say the groups are active throughout the country and might number anywhere from 100,000 to one million adherents. The organizations are loosely connected by a belief that the federal government is conspiring to take away the constitutional rights of Americans and subordinate the U.S. to a world government under the auspices of the United Nations.

According to government investigators, McVeigh was also motivated by a desire to exact revenge against U.S. law enforcement agencies that had taken part in a confrontation with an extremist religious cult in 1993 that ended in the deaths of more than 80 cult members, including several children.

McVeigh and Nichols met while both served in the U.S. Army.

The prosecution used fingerprints, telephone records and hotel receipts to link Nichols to the bombing. Defense attorneys argued that Nichols was being tied to the attack by federal investigators intent on convictions at any cost.

The trials of both men were divided into two parts. In the first part, the government presented its evidence and sought the conviction, while defense attorneys tried to refute government arguments and create doubt in the minds of the 12 jurors. After the conviction, the second part of the trials began with the government asking the jury to impose the death penalty and then trying to demonstrate why the defendants should be executed.

In the Nichols' case, his lawyers have already argued that the jury's decision meant that the death penalty could not even be considered. The defense said the jury concluded that Nichols did not intend to kill anyone and so himself could not be killed.

However, the government countered by saying the death penalty is called for because the jury convicted Nichols of conspiring to bomb the federal building and the resulting deaths were foreseeable.

Both McVeigh and Nichols still face trials in state court in Oklahoma on murder charges. Oklahoma is one of the 38 (of 50) U.S. states where courts may impose the death sentence.

Oklahoma officials have pledged to try both men and seek the death penalty for both. Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy says the two men could get a fair trial in his state without violating their civil rights.

"There's no group of people anywhere that want the right person identified, prosecuted and convicted than the citizens of Oklahoma County," he told a television interviewer on Sunday.

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating said "there is certainly a very real question whether or not Nichols will receive a severe penalty for his involvement in the destruction of this building and the killing of these people," and he said the state will provide the money to try the two men again.