Nichols case called weaker than McVeigh's Prosecution presents circumstantial evidence

November 28, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

DENVER -- As the federal government concludes its `f prosecution of Michigan's Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing, this is clear: The evidence is not as strong as that used to convict Timothy McVeigh.

Nichols' defense lawyers Michael Tigar and Ron Woods also have shown that they will be more aggressive than McVeigh's defenders, promising to exploit "hundreds of reasonable doubts that lurk" in the federal case.

"I think Tigar is going to be pulling some rabbits out of his hat," said Robert Precht, lawyer for one of the defendants in the World Trade Center bombing.

The jury will decide whether that will be enough, but none of the lawyers observing Nichols' trial in U.S. District Court in Denver are talking "slam dunk," as they did in the McVeigh trial.

Still, the case against Nichols is strong, legal experts said. Andrew Cohen, a Denver attorney who has followed both trials, rated it a seven or eight on a scale of one to 10, and Precht called it "a classic circumstantial-evidence case."

Nichols is charged with 11 counts of conspiracy and murder in the bombing on April 19, 1995, of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500. If convicted, Nichols could face the death penalty, the sentence McVeigh received in June.

"No case is going to be as one-sided as the McVeigh case was," Cohen said.

McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran, was arrested by an Oklahoma state trooper about 80 minutes after the bombing, driving away from Oklahoma City. Bomb residue was detected on his clothing, and he wore a shirt that said: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," a quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Nichols was nowhere near Oklahoma City when the bomb went off, and no witnesses at his trial were able to place him directly at any of the key events in the conspiracy. More witnesses saw Nichols' pickup truck than saw Nichols himself.

FBI agents found a receipt in Nichols' home for a 1-ton purchase of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the main ingredient of the bomb. The receipt bore an alias that Nichols used, but it carried McVeigh's fingerprint. The two salesmen who sold the fertilizer could not identify Nichols as the man who bought it, and they appeared to change their story after talking to the FBI.

The salesman who sold three drums of nitromethane racing fuel -- the other main ingredient of the bomb -- from an Ennis, Texas, racetrack described a buyer who looked more like McVeigh than Nichols. The salesman loaded the fuel into a pickup that looked like Nichols'. Motel records show Nichols was staying about 170 miles away in Oklahoma at the time.

The bomb was contained in a Ryder truck. Witnesses saw a Ryder truck and a pickup at a state park near Nichols' home the day before the bombing, but they could not identify anyone near the trucks.

Nichols told FBI agents he had driven to Oklahoma City several days before the bombing to pick up McVeigh, doing a favor for a friend whose car had broken down and picking up his television, which McVeigh had. But prosecutors say the two followed each other to Oklahoma City to leave McVeigh's getaway car.

An FBI expert testified that a drill bit found in Nichols' house was used to break open a lock on an explosives storage shed at a quarry near his home. McVeigh and Nichols used the explosives in the bombing, the government says.

Cohen called records of phone calls by McVeigh and Nichols "the sinew between all of the other bits of evidence. They connect the dots. They connect the places, the times and the people.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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