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Jury Selection for Bomb Trial Begins

Court: Terry Nichols is accused of helping Timothy McVeigh behind the scenes in deadly Oklahoma City attack, but their cases will vary dramatically.

September 30, 1997|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — The difference between Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols was written on their faces.

McVeigh sat stone-like through his trial earlier this year in the Oklahoma City bombing, never signaling emotion--not even when the jury sentenced him to die.

But Nichols, appearing in court Monday as jury selection began for his trial, appeared frightened beyond imagination.

He too is charged in the bombing, and, when the first prospective juror was asked her views about a man's life or death, Nichols suddenly blanched. The 42-year-old former Michigan farmer pushed back in his chair, his face whiter even than his prison pallor, and he swallowed hard.

Federal prosecutors were roundly praised for their masterful case against McVeigh. But for the Nichols trial, a new, reassembled team of government lawyers faces a formidable foe in Michael Tigar, a nationally respected criminal defense attorney. In addition, the strongest evidence against McVeigh--that he devised the plan to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, rented the Ryder truck and delivered the bomb--does not implicate Nichols.

Indeed, he was at home in Kansas, a five-hour drive away, when the bomb went off April 19, 1995.

So the government will try to show that Nichols worked quietly behind the scenes, helping McVeigh purchase 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, renting public lockers to store the bomb components and joining McVeigh at a Kansas lake to mix the bomb ingredients.

Even U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch cautioned that the two cases are not alike.

"There will be significant differences in the evidence and in what the government will try to prove," the judge said Monday from the bench. "It should not be expected that exactly the same thing or even nearly the same thing will happen in this case.

"It is important not to make comparisons. This is a different case. The trial of the United States vs. Terry Lynn Nichols begins with a clean page."

The session opened with the questioning of the first prospective juror, a middle-aged nurse who is married to a doctor. As the lawyers introduced themselves, Nichols, in a blue blazer, striped shirt and dark turtleneck, also rose and smiled. "Good morning," he told her.

The woman, one of more than 400 people from eastern Colorado chosen at random, originally lived in northern Idaho, where there are strong anti-government feelings and an active Posse Comitatus, an anti-government extremist group. For years, Nichols has embraced the same ideals as such groups.

"It is a pretty independent place," the prospective juror said. "People think that as long as there are not bombs exploding and infringements against others, it's a free country."

But whether she could sentence a man to death is another matter. The woman said the defendant would have to have had a significant role in the crime. "Whoever planned the Oklahoma City bombing knew that they were putting many lives in jeopardy," she said. "It would have to depend on what his role was in the crime."

Federal prosecutors, led by Larry Mackey of Indiana, will maintain that Nichols was a key conspirator with McVeigh in planning and executing the blast that killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

The two men, former Army buddies at Ft. Riley, Kan., shared a deep love of guns and a hatred for the federal government. They were together at Nichols' farm in Michigan on the day the FBI raided a religious compound near Waco, Texas, an incident that resulted in the deaths of about 80 people, including children.

But while McVeigh was a lone drifter, Nichols had moved his wife and small daughter to Herington, Kan., where he hoped to start a business selling military surplus. McVeigh also left behind a trove of letters and other writings in which he ranted against the government; Nichols apparently did not.

Lead prosecutor Mackey will allege that the April 19, 1993, Waco inferno prompted Nichols and McVeigh to conspire to blow up a federal building on the second anniversary of the raid against the Branch Davidian cult in Waco. The government will suggest that he and McVeigh believed--wrongly--that some of the federal agents who were at Waco were headquartered in the Murrah building.

One of the government's key witnesses is Michael Fortier, an Army friend of McVeigh and Nichols who also hated the government. He testified in the McVeigh trial that Nichols was present when McVeigh revealed their plans to attack the Murrah building on April 19, 1995.

In the fall of 1994, according to the government's case, Nichols and McVeigh purchased large amounts of fertilizer from a Kansas grain co-op and stored it in lockers they had rented nearby. On the Sunday before the bombing, according to the government, Nichols followed McVeigh to Oklahoma City so McVeigh could leave his getaway car there.

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