Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Terry Nichols and the truth

Things certainly looked grim for Terry Nichols last week after the Oklahoma City bombing jury spent only four hours deliberating in convicting him of 161 counts of first-degree murder as well as arson and conspiracy charges. Justifiably so.

So it was quite a surprise, really, when the same jury proved incapable of sentencing Nichols to death last weekend.

For those keeping track, we are now exactly back to where we were at the end of Nichols' first trial: Nichols will spend the rest of his life behind bars, but he will not face the death penalty. The end result, then, was that the Oklahoma City trial achieved mostly nothing, at a cost to the Oklahoma taxpayers estimated at about $10 million.

The L.A. Times story touches on this aspect:
The jury's inability to agree on a sentence renewed charges that the case was motivated by vengeance and was a waste of energy and resources.

"The politics of the death penalty need to be addressed," said Garvin A. Isaacs, a Oklahoma City attorney who lost two friends to the bombing. "I've just had bad feelings about this whole exercise. When you look at the fact that this man is not going anywhere and will never hurt another person, it seems to me that reason should apply. I just don't understand this. It makes no sense."

Certainly, the trial took a toll on the jury, the majority of whom favored a death sentence, as the Oklahoman reported:
Jurors said they voted repeatedly, with outcomes of 8-4 and 7-5. The majority always wanted death for Nichols for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

... Jurors Saturday said they were upset and frustrated by the outcome.

Juror Joseph Reynolds, who voted for execution, said one question was asked "over and over and over" in the deliberations. If this crime doesn't justify the death sentence, what one would?

He said those voting for life without parole never could give an answer.

He said the deaths of 19 children inside the federal building -- most in the day care -- were reason enough for a death sentence.

"It was their contention that he might be able to do somebody some good someday," Reynolds said of the jurors against a death sentence. "They thought he might be able to talk to a prisoner and do him some good. ... They thought he might do his children some good, also."

Other accounts suggested that the jurors were influenced by Nichols' supposed conversion to Christianity. Meanwhile, the prosecutor questioned the dissenting jurors' honesty, but the complaint had no evidence to support it. Besides, as defense attorney W. Creekmore Wallace told the Oklahoman, jurors often come to such decisions during the course of the trial:
Few jurors know in advance how they will respond when faced with the prospect of actually condemning someone to die, Wallace said -- especially a case as complex as Nichols'.

Lead defense attorney Brian Hermanson said jurors who rejected the death penalty were brave.

"While most people in Oklahoma did not want a second trial, almost everyone in Oklahoma has strong feelings about Terry," he said. "Those jurors knew that and still followed their consciences."

While most of the accounts so far have focused on jurors' perceptions of Nichols, few have mentioned a factor that may have played an equally significant role: the suggestion that Nichols was only a minor participant in the bombing plot, someone who was easily manipulated by Tim McVeigh, and that "others unknown" may have played more substantial roles.

Indeed, even before sentence was announced, the Oklahoman reported that many observers, including the families of victims, were hopeful that Nichols would be spared, precisely because he may know the names of those other participants.

This point did receive considerable attention, however, in Scott Gold's follow-up in the L.A. Times:
Perhaps the most unanticipated response came from those who believed Nichols was the state's best and last chance for unraveling what they saw as an enduring and maddening mystery. The end of the trial -- a quick conviction, but a division among jurors as to the sentence -- rekindled the belief among some that the Oklahoma City bombing plot was more complex than government officials had allowed, and involved people who had not been identified or caught.

Jannie Coverdale, 66, an Oklahoma City retiree whose two grandchildren died in the bombing, said she did not believe in what she saw as more fanciful conspiracy theories. But she said she believed others helped plot the bombing.

"And some people believe Terry Nichols is going to give up the information one of these years," she said. "These people operate in cells. I will always believe that other people were involved. And I don't believe that we should be crucified for that."

Relying on Nichols to reveal whether others were involved, if there were any others, is a longshot, acknowledged Gloria Chipman, an Edmond, Okla., resident whose husband, Robert, was killed in the blast.

"I hope they keep a good eye on him," she said. "But if he hasn't talked before, I don't think he's going to start now."

As regular readers will recall, I've described in detail previously the many facets of this point. Nichols' first trial, as I explored in a Salon piece about the John Doe 2 mystery, ended as it did precisely because there were serious doubts in the minds of both the jury and the judge that Nichols and McVeigh acted alone:
A more reasonable explanation for the construction of the bomb can be found in the testimony at Terry Nichols' trial. Charles Farley, a local sporting-goods rental shop worker, told the courtroom that he passed by Geary Lake at the time the bomb was being built, and saw not only the Ryder truck, a two-ton farm truck loaded with white bags of fertilizer and a car similar to McVeigh's getaway car, but at least five men working around the scene.

"Initially, when I got to the gate, there was one individual standing at the back of the farm truck, at the back left corner of the farm truck," Farley testified. "I seen three individuals standing down between the Ryder truck and the brown car, one of them standing in the -- in the road just a little bit, one of them leaning against the front of the Ryder truck and the other one just kind of standing between them."

Farley said he made to drive out of the area, pulling just beyond a gate nearby. "As soon as I was out, I seen an individual walking alongside of the farm truck. He was probably at the cab when I first seen him. And I was really going slow. I mean, I was just creeping. And I was going to roll the window down and ask him if he needed some help. And -- give me kind of a dirty look and I decided, well, if you're going to be that way, me too, and I'm just going to leave; so I just drove away."

Farley said he couldn't identify any of the other men, but he got a clear view of the man who shot him a look. Nichols' defense attorneys handed him a photo of a gray-bearded man and asked if that was him, and Farley said it was. The Rocky Mountain News later tracked down the identity of the man in the photo and found it was a sixtyish member of a local Kansas citizens' militia group named Morris Wilson.

Strangely, prosecutors did not attempt to rebut Farley's testimony, which came on the last full day of defense testimony. It was a crucial error in judgment. The jury convicted Nichols, but only of the lesser crime of taking part in the conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter, eschewing the murder and bombing charges that would have brought him the death penalty. Several of the jurors later said that Farley's testimony had convinced them that there was a wider conspiracy.

The jurors were not alone. In the sentencing phase of the trial, Judge Matsch himself indicated he was not convinced that everyone involved in the bombing had been brought to justice when he offered to lighten Nichols' life sentence in exchange for information about other participants. He said many questions about the case remained unanswered, adding: "If the defendant in this case, Mr. Nichols, comes forward with answers or information leading to answers to some of these questions, it would be something that the court can consider in imposing final sentence," Matsch said.

Nichols chose not to act on Matsch's offer precisely because the Oklahoma charges still awaited. But now that those have been resolved, Nichols is free to open up and begin identifying any other perpetrators. His lawyers may even offer such information as part of final sentencing; it will be interesting to see if Judge Steven Wilson, who has presided over this trial, will make an offer similar to Matsch's.

The mystery, it's clear, will live on -- and as long as it does so, the nation will be unable to resolve the serious issues raised by the Oklahoma City bombing. But there is some small comfort, at least, knowing that the sole person capable of revealing the truth will remain alive for the foreseeable future. Perhaps, at some point, that newly acquired Christian conscience will kick in.

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