State trial opens in Okla. bombing

Nichols being portrayed as full partner or patsy in 1995 blast that killed 168

March 23, 2004|By Lianne Hart | Lianne Hart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

McALESTER, Okla. - Terry L. Nichols' state murder trial got under way yesterday, with lawyers alternately describing him as a key player in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and as a victim set up by right-wing conspirators who remain at large.

Nichols had "strong, bitter feelings" toward the government, prosecutor Lou Keel said in his opening statement, and he worked closely with Timothy J. McVeigh to buy, store and test the explosives needed to bring down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "These two were partners, and their business was terrorism," Keel said.

But defense lawyer Brian Hermanson argued that Nichols was at home in Kansas on the day of the bombing, and "didn't realize there was an explosion until he saw it on TV." McVeigh "used people," Hermanson said, and had ensnared Nichols, his Army buddy, in a plot that involved "friendship, manipulation and betrayal."

Nichols, 48, already is serving a federal life sentence for the deaths of eight government agents who died in the explosion that killed 168 people. The state murder charges cover the other deaths, including the fetus of one victim. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Prosecutors linked Nichols yesterday to the bomb plot through evidence found at his house: A receipt for 2 tons of ammonium nitrate, the material used in the bomb, was found in a kitchen drawer. Blasting caps and explosives recovered at the bomb site matched materials stolen from a quarry near his home. Literature on how to build a bomb and a book that describes blowing up a building with ammonium nitrate also were found in Nichols' house.

"Money out of Mr. Nichols' pocket" financed the purchase and storage of the bomb parts, Keel said. "Mr. Nichols was the one chiefly responsible for gathering the components."

Defense lawyers are taking a tack disallowed at Nichols' 1997 federal trial by alluding to conspirators in a plot meant to make Nichols the fall guy. Oklahoma District Judge Steven Taylor has approved testimony from a death-row inmate who is expected to say that McVeigh, during conversations in prison, named other conspirators before his execution in 2001.

Before opening arguments, two jurors and an alternate were dismissed yesterday because they are distant relatives of an attorney in the prosecutor's office who had served as a consultant during jury selection.

A visibly angry Taylor chastised prosecutors for not revealing the connection before the final jury was chosen, calling their conduct "inexplicable" and "inexcusable." Taylor said that if during the trial - which is expected to last four to six months - he runs out of alternate jurors, he will dismiss the case.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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