Rough justice in Denver Degrees of guilt: Jurors drew distinction between McVeigh and Nichols.

December 26, 1997

MANY AMERICANS, including the families of victims, were dismayed by the complicated verdicts on Terry L. Nichols rendered by a jury that agonized for 41 hours over six days to reach them. The verdicts were inconsistent, but not frivolous or casually decided.

The evidence was overwhelming that Nichols planned and prepared a massive bomb with Timothy McVeigh but refused to take part in its delivery, April 19, 1995, to the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was the driving force and Nichols the helper. Even when Nichols went no further, he did nothing to prevent the bombing or to warn authorities.

McVeigh was convicted last June in Denver of the conspiracy and of first degree murder of eight federal law enforcement officers. Judge Richard P. Matsch sentenced him to death. Now the jurors in a separate trial have determined Nichols was equally guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction but not of carrying out that conspiracy. They found Nichols guilty of involuntary manslaughter, or lack of due caution, in the death of the federal agents, but not of their premeditated murder.

Much is made of the contradiction between a finding of conspiracy but not of premeditation. But it is clear the jurors unanimously found Nichols as guilty as McVeigh of preparing the crime and guilty to a lesser degree of carrying it out. Most people would concur in this rough distinction if not with the fine print.

Nichols stands guilty of a crime for which the death penalty may be imposed under federal law. The Oklahoma City prosecutor says he will charge Nichols, under Oklahoma law, with first-degree murder of the 160 victims who were not federal law enforcement agents.

The crime was a mass murder. It horrified the nation. Ordinary and patriotic Americans were the randomly chosen victims. No foreign conspiracy was at work. The terrorists came from middle America, as did their victims. If anyone should ever be executed by the United States government, McVeigh qualifies. Nichols should never get out of prison. The verdict justifies keeping him there as long as he breathes.

As for putting it right, letting family of victims sleep nights, that was not done in the Denver court room and is not in the power of the jury. The atrocity of McVeigh and Nichols will live forever, defying their common humanity with the victims. There can be no closure for that.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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