Jury divided Nichols escapes death penalty

Panel unable to agree on his role in Okla. City bombing

Judge will decide sentence

January 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DENVER -- Terry L. Nichols escaped the death penalty yesterday, after a deeply divided federal jury said it could not decide just how active a role he played in planning the bombing that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City's federal building.

Judge Richard P. Matsch excused jurors yesterday morning and will sentence Nichols to a life term or, possibly, a lesser term. Under federal law, only the jury could have given Nichols the death penalty, the sentence that was given to his co-conspirator, Timothy J. McVeigh.

No sentencing date was set.

But Nichols could still face a death penalty prosecution again, if a state grand jury in Oklahoma indicts him and McVeigh on state murder charges.

After the verdict was announced, some family members of Oklahoma City bombing victims expressed dismay.

But jurors described how they deliberated 13 hours over two days, often with raised voices, but could not decide for certain that Nichols actually intended to kill anyone in the April 19, 1995, bombing that was the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

In a news conference after the jury was dismissed, the forewoman, Niki Deutchman, said of Nichols: "I felt like he knew there was a bomb and that he was involved right up to the end."

But other jurors, she said, believed Nichols played a tiny role in the conspiracy and might not have known a bomb was involved.

"The government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Terry Nichols was involved," the registered nurse said.

She said the government "dropped the ball" and failed to search for other suspects.

In convicting Nichols last month, the same jury struggled for 41 hours over six days before drawing a sharp distinction between the two conspirators.

The government had portrayed McVeigh as the prime mover, an angry loner who plotted to explode a Ryder rental truck packed )) with homemade explosives. Nichols, by all accounts, never completed tasks, and defense lawyers insisted he dropped ties to McVeigh before the bombing.

The jury last month convicted Nichols of conspiring to bomb the federal building, but in a nuanced verdict acquitted him of carrying out the actual bombing.

It also acquitted him of both first- and second-degree murder charges in the deaths of eight federal agents who lost their lives in the federal building and settled on involuntary manslaughter instead.

The death penalty could have been imposed only on the conspiracy charge, and the strain in deciding what to do showed on the faces of the jurors Tuesday afternoon, when they sent two notes to Matsch -- released after the verdict yesterday -- in which they explained they were at an impasse and asked him what to do.

Yesterday morning, minutes after they met at 8: 30 a.m., the judge told the jurors that their inability to reach a unanimous decision about whether Nichols intended to kill anyone was, in itself, a decision.

"You have had an adequate opportunity to discuss it, to deliberate it, and to decide, and we know that you're working," he said. "So, having determined there has been a reasonable and adequate opportunity to decide, I am not going to require you to go further. I am, in short, going to discharge you."

Matsch will sentence Nichols under federal sentencing guidelines that do not allow the death penalty. Nonetheless, he could sentence Nichols to enough years in prison to amount to a life sentence. There is no parole in the federal system.

Michael Tigar, the lead lawyer for Nichols, had little to say as he left the courthouse with his wife, Jane, who was also a member of the Nichols legal team. He called the trial "a lesson in how the American justice system works."

Members of the Nichols family, including Nichols' parents, brothers James and Leslie, and sister, Suzanne, smiled broadly as they left the courthouse and stopped to pose for a family photograph by the front door.

"It's not over," James Nichols said. "He's not free."

In Oklahoma City, Gov. Frank Keating and District Attorney Robert Macy went to the site of the bombing, still surrounded by a fence on which teddy bears and a few ragged Christmas wreaths hang in remembrance. An icy drizzle, mixed with snow, fell along with the tears of the handful of people who came out to join them.

"I'm disappointed with the jury," Keating said. "They were expected to make this decision. This is what juries are supposed to do, and they walked away from it."

Macy said the verdict in Denver proved the need for the state's plans to try McVeigh and Nichols on murder charges. He said he hoped to proceed with the cases by early February.

Victims of the bombing departed in silence, some red-faced with anger, some in tears. "I'm mad and I'm disgusted," said Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter, Frankie Merrell, and attended every day of the trial. "This is the worst act of terrorism in the United States of America."

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