Nichols' trial begins, differs from McVeigh's Case may be tougher for the prosecution

September 30, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- The difference between Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols is written into their faces.

McVeigh sat stonelike through his trial earlier this year for the Oklahoma City bombing, never signaling emotion -- not even when jurors sentenced him to die.

But Nichols, appearing at the start of his trial yesterday, looked frightened.

He, too, is charged in the bombing, and when jury selection began in the morning and 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 his chair, his face turned whiter 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 more 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 apply to 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 insist that Nichols worked quietly behind the scenes, helping McVeigh purchase 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, renting lockers to store the bomb components, and joining McVeigh at a Kansas state lake to prepare the bomb.

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

'This is a different case'

"There will be significant differences in the evidence and in what the government will try to prove," the judge announced yesterday. "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 trial opened with 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, 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. For years, Nichols has embraced those same sentiments.

"It is a pretty independent place," she 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."

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

Former Army buddies

The two men, former Army buddies from Fort Riley, Kan., shared a love of guns and a dark hatred for the federal government. They were together at Nichols' farm home in Michigan on the day the FBI raided a Waco, Texas, religious compound, 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 items.

McVeigh also left letters and other writings in which he ranted against the government; Nichols apparently did not.

Lead prosecutor Mackey alleges 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 Davidians.

The government suggests that he and McVeigh believed -- wrongly -- that some of the federal agents who were at Waco were headquartered in the Murrah building.

A key witness

One of the government's key witnesses is Michael Fortier, another Army buddy who 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 rented nearby. The Sunday before the bombing, the government says, Nichols followed McVeigh to Oklahoma City so McVeigh could leave his getaway car there.

And the day before the bombing, Nichols helped McVeigh pack the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil into large barrels, and then put the barrels in the back of a Ryder truck McVeigh had rented, the government will argue.

Furthermore, the government hopes to show that Nichols was involved in two robberies, stealing guns from an Arkansas horse farmer and dynamite from a Kansas quarry.

Prosecutors contend the guns were sold to help further the conspiracy, and that the dynamite was used in the bombing.

Tigar, a tenacious criminal defense attorney from Texas, maintains that Nichols should be found not guilty because he was home at the time of the blast. When he heard his name mentioned in connection with McVeigh, he surrendered to authorities.

In addition, Fortier has said that McVeigh was upset with Nichols before the bombing because Nichols was saying he wanted out of the conspiracy.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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