YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Nichols' Oklahoma Bombing Trial Begins

State prosecutors call him a key player in the 1995 attack. The defense says he was a victim of conspirators. He could face the death penalty.

March 23, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

McALESTER, Okla. -- Terry L. Nichols' state murder trial got underway Monday, with lawyers alternately describing him as a key player in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and as a victim set up by a group of right-wing conspirators who remain at large.

Nichols had "strong, bitter feelings" toward the government, prosecutor Lou Keel said in his opening statement, adding that he worked closely with convicted bomber Timothy J. McVeigh to buy, store and test the explosives needed to bring down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "These two were partners, and their business was terrorism," Keel said.

But defense lawyer Brian Hermanson argued that Nichols was at home in Kansas on the day of the bombing and "didn't realize there was an explosion until he saw it on TV." McVeigh "used people," Hermanson said, and had ensnared Nichols, his Army buddy, in a plot that involved "friendship, manipulation and betrayal."

"Timothy McVeigh had the ability to lay tracks to make people look like they're involved in something when they're not .... Mr. Nichols was set up so that McVeigh could cover up the actions of others in their conspiracy," Hermanson said.

Nichols, 48, already is serving a federal life sentence for the deaths of eight government agents who died in the explosion that killed 168 people. The state murder charges cover the 160 other deaths and the fetus of one victim. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Following ground covered during McVeigh's and Nichols' federal trials, prosecutors Monday linked Nichols to the bomb plot through evidence found at his house: A receipt for two tons of ammonium nitrate, the material used in the bomb, was discovered in Nichols' kitchen drawer. Blasting caps and explosives recovered at the bomb site matched materials stolen from a rock quarry near his home. Literature on how to build a bomb and a book that describes blowing up a building with ammonium nitrate also were also found in Nichols' house.

"Money out of Mr. Nichols' pocket" financed the purchase and storage of the bomb parts, Keel said. "Mr. Nichols was the one chiefly responsible for gathering the components."

Defense lawyers, however, are taking a tack disallowed at Nichols' 1997 federal trial by alluding to conspirators in a plot meant to make Nichols the fall guy. Oklahoma District Judge Steven Taylor has approved testimony from a death row inmate who is expected to say that McVeigh, during conversations in prison, named other conspirators before his execution in 2001.

"The evidence will show so many hundreds of reasonable doubts about what happened," said Hermanson, adding that prosecutors were relying on "assumptions and circumstantial evidence."

Before the opening arguments two jurors and an alternate were dismissed Monday because they were distant relatives of an attorney in the prosecutor's office who had served as a consultant during jury selection.

An angry Taylor chastised prosecutors for not revealing the connection before the final jury was chosen, calling their conduct "inexplicable" and "inexcusable." The judge said that if during the trial -- expected to last four to six months -- he ran out of alternate jurors, he would dismiss the case.

The trial was moved to McAlester, 130 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, in an effort to seat an impartial jury. Many Oklahomans consider the state trial a waste of time and money, as evidenced by the half-empty courtroom Monday.

But for the 18 family members of bombing victims who listened to opening arguments, the trial was another chance for justice. "Someone has to be accountable," said Roy Sells, whose wife died in the explosion.

Sells said that he had attended every day of Nichols' federal trial in Denver and that he was disappointed when Nichols did not get the death penalty. "They're going through the same evidence here that they had before, but I think it's going to work out better in Oklahoma," he said. "We've got a better jury."

Los Angeles Times Articles