Bombing trial divides Oklahomans

Cost, value of trying federal convict Nichols in state is questioned

March 01, 2004|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

McALESTER, Okla. - When Bill Rayburn says that death is the easy way out, folks around here tend to listen.

At 87, Rayburn is old enough to remember how the Depression nearly snuffed out small towns like this. He nearly lost his life in the Battle of the Bulge, earned two Purple Hearts in three wars and has seen things on a battlefield that gentlemen don't speak about in public.

Sure, he says, he wants to see Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols die. He just wants it to take a while. And like many others here, he disagrees with Oklahoma's decision to embark on a costly trial that will resurrect the agony of the 1995 federal building bombing - not when Nichols, 48, has been convicted in a federal trial and is serving a life prison term without possibility of parole.

"A life sentence penned up like an animal is a much worse punishment than death," Rayburn said last week in McAlester City Hall, where clerks still greet him as "Mr. Mayor" in homage to his three terms in office in the 1980s. "There is no way to ever compensate for the loss of lives and the tragedy of that day. Even if it ends in conviction, what have we gained?"

When state prosecutors file into the Pittsburg County courthouse in McAlester this morning to choose a jury in the Nichols case, having outlasted nine years of legal wrangling, it would seem to be a triumph of endurance and determination. Instead, Oklahoma is deeply divided and conflicted, not over Nichols' guilt, but whether the trial is an exercise in redundancy and futility that this state, literally, cannot afford.

Nichols was convicted of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in 1997 in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement agents who were killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

State prosecutors are trying him on 161 counts of first-degree murder - one count for each of the others killed in the bombing, including a fetus. They are seeking the death penalty.

In a sparsely populated state, whose schools, highways and social programs are often in dire need of funds, taxpayers have paid more than $4 million to cover Nichols' state prosecution, defense and security.

At least 11 attorneys and investigators are working full time on Nichols' behalf. Five prison guards have been assigned to watch his cell and his activities 24 hours a day ever since he was transferred to Oklahoma from Colorado's Supermax prison.

Some analysts think the total cost of the trial, which was moved to McAlester largely in an attempt to find an impartial jury, will exceed $10 million. The investigation into the bombing and the federal trials of Nichols and bomber Timothy McVeigh - who was executed in July 2001 - cost nearly $100 million.

McAlester, with about 19,000 people, is often regarded as the epicenter of the Bible Belt. It is the largest city in the southeast corner of Oklahoma. Compared with other towns in the area, McAlester is holding up in the face of a soured economy.

But signs of poverty can be found along almost every street. After weathering a storm of crack abuse in the 1990s, police say they are combating soaring use of methamphetamine.

Merchants in the main business district, where two stores have closed in the last year, say they fear that attorneys and others attached to the trial are going to take up all the parking spots, hurting their business.

"This case is the high price of vengeance, not just in financial terms, but in all the other terms - the immense pain and agony and time and strain on the court system," said Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that addresses civil rights and corrections issues in the South. "There is one purpose for this and one purpose only: the death penalty."

Citing a gag order, attorneys on both sides and top state officials declined comment.

Relatives of bombing victims defend the trial.

"People are putting a dollar figure on human life, and that's not right," said Doris Jones of Norman, Okla., whose daughter, Carrie Lenz, 26, was killed in her ninth-floor office that morning.

"I understand that it costs a lot of money," said Jones, 55. "But if that's what it costs, then that's what it costs. I will feel some relief just knowing that when the trial starts, that [Nichols] is charged with my daughter's murder."

Even if Nichols is convicted at the state trial and sentenced to death, he might not be executed. His attorneys would likely appeal a conviction, partly on the argument that he couldn't get a fair trial in Oklahoma.

Jeannine Gist, 68, of Midwest City, Okla., says it is immaterial whether Nichols appeals or is executed. She just wants someone held accountable for the death of her 32-year-old daughter, Karen Carr.

"This was a premeditated act designed to murder as many people as possible," she said. "He needs to be held responsible. They promised us a trial."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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