Okla. bombing toll made vivid in emotional day of testimony A jury brought to tears weighs death or prison for convicted Nichols

December 30, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- In a courtroom heavy with the sorrow from two trials this year, lawyers opened the second stage of the Oklahoma City bombing case against Terry L. Nichols yesterday -- with the government demanding that he join Timothy J. McVeigh on death row and the defense imploring the jury to spare the life of "Terry Nichols the human being."

Neither side held back in arguing how it believed Nichols should be punished for collaborating in the worst act of terrorism in America.

The stakes for Nichols: either death or life in prison with no hope of release.

The jury that must make that decision is the same one that struggled for six days before reaching last week what seems to be a compromise verdict about Nichols' role in the bombing.

Pat Ryan, the U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City, said the government will present 60 witnesses over the next three days to dramatize not only the horror of April 19, 1995, but the suffering the victims and their families endure today.

The government's first witnesses yesterday were a mother who lost a son in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building's day care center, a policeman who still anguishes over his inability to save others, and a man who brought the courtroom to tears when he described living childless for 37 years with one woman, the two of them making a life by singing in the church choir and teaching Sunday school.

When prosecutors displayed a photograph of Leora Lee Sells, a Housing and Urban Development employee killed in the explosion, her husband, Roy Sells, responded with simple grace.

"Yes, sir," he said. "That's my beautiful wife."

Lead defense lawyer Michael Tigar told the jurors that in the midst of such heartbreaking stories, they must not close their minds to his 42-year-old client.

He told them that Nichols' role in the bombing was peripheral at best, that others with more responsibility remain unpunished. He promised that when the defense puts on its case in this sentencing phase of the trial, it will show a fresh side of Nichols, one of a father in prison kept away from his children and unable to help care for their upbringing.

While several jurors cried openly at the victims' tales, Tigar's description of Nichols reaching out from jail to his children prompted Nichols' eyes, normally unemotional during his trial, to tear over, and Nichols nearly broke down in front of the jury.

"It was one year after his arrest before he was even permitted to touch his children," Tigar said.

McVeigh went on trial first this year and in June his jury found him guilty on all 11 counts against him and sentenced him to death for being the mastermind of the bombing.

But the Nichols jury is decidedly different. This panel of seven women and five men deliberated for 41 hours before reaching a mixed verdict Dec. 23.

It found Nichols guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction -- a fertilizer bomb inside a rented truck -- and determined that he knew the explosion would cause deaths.

But the jury acquitted Nichols on two counts of actually using the weapon and destroying the building, and found him guilty only of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of the eight federal law enforcement officers killed in the blast.

Nevertheless, the guilty verdict in the first conspiracy count carries the possible death sentence.

In his opening statement, Ryan characterized the case as not one mass murder, but 168 individual homicides. In listing the aggravating factors the government hopes to prove against Nichols, he said prosecutors will stress that Nichols invested "substantial planning and premeditation" in the bombing, and then stayed at home in Kansas when he knew what devastation was coming.

Tigar began his statement to the jurors by urging them not to "sign a paper" that sets in motion "some morning or some afternoon when they take Terry Nichols out to kill him."

He said Nichols is not allowed sharp objects in prison, such as a pencil or pen, and so he uses toothpaste to draw bright objects on greeting cards that he sends his three children.

Tigar reiterated his charge that others were more heavily involved with McVeigh.

"Others who are equally culpable will not be punished with death," Tigar said, adding that some of them "the government hasn't even bothered to look for."

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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