Jury convicts Nichols on 161 murder counts

Panel deliberates 5 hours on the state charges in Oklahoma City bombing

May 27, 2004|By Lianne Hart and Scott Gold | Lianne Hart and Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

McALESTER, Okla. - A jury convicted Terry L. Nichols of 161 state murder counts yesterday, rejecting defense claims that he had been an unwitting accomplice to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The jury, which deliberated for five hours, instead branded him a full partner of executed bomber Timothy J. McVeigh. Next week, prosecutors will try to persuade the same 12 jurors to do what a federal jury would not six years ago: sentence Nichols to death.

As District Judge Steven Taylor announced the decision, Nichols, 49, looked wan but remained stone-faced. Emotion surged through the courtroom. Doris Delman, 71, pulled out a worn wallet and flipped to a photograph of her daughter, Terry Rees, who died on the seventh floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. As her eyes filled with tears, she placed the picture on her lap and patted it gently.

After spilling out of the courthouse, relatives of the victims noted that, legally, the verdict marked the first time anyone had been held accountable for the bulk of the deaths that occurred that morning in 1995.

Nichols and McVeigh were convicted in federal court for the deaths of eight law-enforcement officials. McVeigh was put to death in June 2001, before he could be brought to trial in state court. Years of delays and legal wrangling had kept Nichols from being brought to trial for the remaining 161 deaths, including that of a fetus of one of the victims.

"It was long, long overdue," Gloria Taylor said yesterday. Her daughter Theresa Lauderdale, 41, died in the explosion. Taylor said she and her husband, John, were making plans to visit their daughter's grave in Shawnee, Okla.

"The main thing was to have peace," she said. "I think we have that now."

Nichols' 1997 federal conviction brought a life prison term without possibility of parole. The state trial was moved to tiny McAlester, 130 miles from Oklahoma City, to ensure an impartial jury. Residents across the state were divided in recent months over whether a second trial would be worth the expense and heartache.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was among those conflicted over the decision to try Nichols again. But in an interview after the jury returned its verdict, Cornett said there was satisfaction in knowing someone finally had been held accountable for all the deaths.

"There is a lot of solidarity in Oklahoma City. Once people decided [to go to trial], it was an all-for-one effort," Cornett said. "And if he is guilty of first-degree murder - on 161 counts - then, yes, he deserves to die for that crime."

Many of the victims' family members agreed yesterday.

"I don't think he ought to have the privilege of visiting his daughter and mother," John Taylor said. "I don't have that privilege with my daughter. If he doesn't get the death penalty, then what's all of this for?"

Delman, still clutching the photo of her daughter, said she could not imagine the jury returning with any other sentence than death.

"I didn't support the death penalty before this happened," she said. "But after hearing about how people died, their heads and arms blown off, babies and children dying like they did, what else can you want for someone who would do something like that?"

But that opinion is not universal here.

"He'll be in prison for life. What's the point?" said Carrie Reed, 40, who operates a Western apparel store in McAlester with her sister. "He's never admitted doing it. And he never will. Where's the satisfaction in that? The whole thing is just really sad."

Nichols' attorneys almost certainly would appeal a death sentence. And many legal observers said they would have a good chance of winning. That's largely because a U.S. district judge, in moving the federal trials of Nichols and McVeigh to Denver, had ruled that "there is so great a prejudice against these two defendants ... that they cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial at any place ... in the state."

"Regardless of the outcome, this was a ... terrible waste of public resources," said Michael E. Tigar, who represented Nichols during the federal trial. "The people of Oklahoma suffered in that tragedy. It was unfair to ask them to then take on the burden of trying to be fair judges of what happened."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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