Keeping distance from McVeigh Trial: Terry L. Nichols goes on trial at the end of this month in the Oklahoma City bombing. His lawyers will argue that he did not have a major part in the attack.

Sun Journal

September 07, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

When Terry L. Nichols comes to trial in Denver on Sept. 29, on charges that he helped plot the Oklahoma City bombing, his lawyers are expected to spend a lot of time trying to focus the jury's attention on one point: Terry Nichols is not Timothy J. McVeigh.

They have already said so in court. At a hearing last week, Nichols' attorneys tried to block the introduction of some trial evidence -- including evidence of Nichols' anti-government philosophies. The defense objected that government prosecutors were trying "to turn Mr. Nichols into Mr. McVeigh in the eyes of the jury."

That is the last thing Nichols' lawyers want. McVeigh, 29, was sentenced to death in June for plotting the nation's worst act of domestic terrorism, the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

One hundred sixty-eight people died and more than 500 were injured when a bomb carried inside a rented Ryder truck ripped open the office building and threw the city's center into chaos.

The bombing left Oklahoma City grieving and the country's sense of security shaken. The horror of that day was recalled again and again during McVeigh's trial as witnesses offered wrenching testimony about dead children and ruined lives. Victims and relatives of the dead packed the courtroom daily. McVeigh watched it all without emotion.

Conspiracy, murder charges

Now, Nichols is set to come to trial on the same three counts of conspiracy and eight counts of murder that McVeigh faced. If convicted, he, too, could be sentenced to death. But Nichols' lawyers are expected to insist that their quiet, bespectacled client cannot be found guilty.

"They'll argue that our guy wasn't part of it," says Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer and legal analyst who has been following the case. "Or, even if he was a part of it, he wasn't a major part of it. Or, he tried to get out of it."

During his trial last spring, prosecutors portrayed McVeigh as a disaffected loner, a Persian Gulf war veteran consumed with hatred of the government.

He was described as a man so heartless that he planned the bombing for business hours, to ensure the highest number of casualties, aware that babies would be in their cribs in the federal building's day-care center.

Distance sought

To literally distance their client from McVeigh, Nichols' lawyers tried to have his trial moved from Denver. Judge Richard P. Matsch, the same federal judge who presided over the McVeigh trial, denied the change of venue.

At last week's hearing, Nichols' lawyers conceded that McVeigh had blown up the federal building. But they said Nichols' anti-government beliefs did not prove that he was involved in any bomb plot. It was unfair, they said, to link Nichols with the "violent and revolutionary fervor" of McVeigh.

Cohen says that defense attorneys will note that their client is 42, married, a father of three -- not at all like McVeigh, who was single and drifted from state to state.

Nichols also has something McVeigh lacked: an undisputed alibi for April 19, 1995. He was at home in Herington, Kan. But an alibi for that one day will do him no legal good if the jury concludes that Nichols agreed with the bombing plan and helped carry it out.

Equal blame in conspiracy

In the eyes of the legal system, all conspirators are equally culpable. If Nichols is convicted for his alleged role in the Oklahoma City bombing, he could join McVeigh on federal death row.

"If you're part of it, you're part of the whole," says M. Albert Figinski, a Baltimore lawyer, speaking in general about conspiracy cases. "Unless you can demonstrate a clear break, a definite I-don't-want-to-be-involved-anymore action, once you're part of it, you're stuck."

Another difference between the two cases: McVeigh was stopped on a traffic offense 90 minutes after the bombing and was taken into custody after he was found to have a gun.

But Nichols turned himself in at the Herington police station two days after the bombing. He said he had heard on television that the authorities wanted him for questioning. FBI agents interviewed him for nine hours.

Defense lawyers "are going to say Terry Nichols voluntarily came to the police station," Cohen says. "Terry Nichols, from what we know, did not leave a trail of anti-government hate literature everywhere. So some of the motive, the intent, you had there with McVeigh you don't have with Nichols."

Nichols has, in the past, protested what he viewed as tyrannical federal authority. For example, when a bank sued him over a loan, he shouted to the judge that the court had no jurisdiction over him.

But, Cohen notes, Nichols apparently did not direct his hatred toward government employees; McVeigh made his animosity clear. "Die, you spineless, cowardice bastards," he wrote in a computer file addressed to federal agents.

Last week, Matsch barred some examples of Nichols' political views as evidence, saying many Americans share those same beliefs.

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