The Oklahoma City Bombing Case: The Second Trial
The Trial of Terry Nichols
 
   

Terry Nichols is Timothy McVeigh's alleged accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. Prosecutors say that Nichols helped McVeigh plan the bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, killed 168 people and injured more than 500 on April 19, 1995. Nichols, a former army buddy of McVeigh, is also accused of stealing money and materials to build the bomb.

Nichols, 42, claims that he was not in Oklahoma on the day of the bombing but rather in his hometown of Herington, Kan.. Like McVeigh, Nichols faces charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons-related charges. If convicted, he will face the death penalty. (The punishment for conspiracy alone is the death penalty.) On June 2, a jury convicted McVeigh of the same charges. He was formally sentenced on Aug. 14 to death, but plans to appeal his conviction.

Government prosecutors reportedly have no evidence that Nichols was in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing, but they claim that he was there three days before the bombing. Nichols allegedly helped drop off the getaway car McVeigh used during the bombing. (According to reports, the government has an enhanced security surveillance photo that apparently shows Nichols's pickup truck parked a block away from the federal building in Oklahoma three days before the bombing.) Prosecutors also claim that in the months leading up to the bombing, Nichols stole bomb components such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer and a detonator cord using an alias name. He also allegedly used the alias to rent storage space for the bomb materials. Investigators reportedly found receipts for the bomb components in Nichols's home in Kansas.

Nichols's defense lawyers are expected to focus on the testimony of government witness Michael Fortier, who testified against McVeigh during his trial under a plea agreement. Fortier has said that McVeigh told him about the bombing plot months before it occurred. However, Fortier claimed, Nichols backed out of the plan.

Nichols met McVeigh at Ft. Benning, Ga. after he enlisted in the Army in 1988. Both reportedly had a strong interest in guns, ring-wing political philosophies and militia groups. Nichols's reportedly anti-U.S. government philosophy drove him to attempt to renounce his U.S. citizenship twice.

The Interrogation

Terry Nichols turned himself in at a police station in Herrington, Kan. two days after the Oklahoma City bombing. Accompanied by his wife Marife and his then-two-year-old daughter, Nichols claimed that he had heard from news accounts that the FBI wanted to talk to him about the bombing and his friend, Timothy McVeigh. Nichols also claimed that he turned himself in because he wanted to avoid a Waco-like siege by the government on his house in Herrington.

FBI agents interrogated Nichols for nine hours, and ever since then, he has been held in federal custody. Nichols's statements will be a key component of evidence during his trial for both the prosecution and the defense. While his statements can be seen as both incriminating and exculpatory, they cannot be considered "formal." Nichols's interrogation was not written down, audiotaped, or videotaped. Usually when investigators take a statement from suspects, they write a summary of the suspect's statement and have him sign it. That was not done during Nichols's interrogation

Nichols's oral statements will be described by his interrogators under oath during trial. Lawyers on both sides will use the notes taken by the interrogators on Nichols's statements to attack and support the investigators' credibility. Government prosecutors say Nichols lied to investigators in some instances. (For example, they claim Nichols lied when he said he did not know anything about McVeigh's plans to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building.) The defense argues that Nichols told nothing but the truth during the interrogation.

The John Doe 2 Theory

The bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Building allegedly was carried in a rented Ryder truck that was traced to Elliott's Body shop in Junction City, Kan. During Timothy McVeigh's trial, only one witness, Eldon Elliott, testified that the person who rented the truck under the name "Robert Kling" was in fact McVeigh. However, lawyers for Terry Nichols may call at least two other employees of Elliott's Body Shop who will testify that "Kling" was with another man, known only as John Doe 2. No one has ever accused Nichols of being John Doe 2; government prosecutors do not even allege that Nichols was present when McVeigh rented the Ryder truck. So, the defense will try to keep the jury focused on the existence of John Doe 2, a possible third person involved in the bombing.

The Government's Case

Prosecutors concede that Nichols was not in Oklahoma when the bomb went off and that he was home with his family in Kansas. But they claim Nichols helped McVeigh steal and purchase the bomb's components, rented the storage space for the components, and helped McVeigh build the bomb in Kansas the day before the fatal explosion. The prosecution will try to prove Nichols's involvement in the bombing conspiracy with most circumstantial evidence: phone records from calling cards showing calls to and from Nichols's house to companies which sold explosives and chemicals; checks and receipts for storage shed rentals; blasting caps and ammonium nitrate found in Nichols's home. The FBI also claims that it found a drill and drill bit which allegedly matches a drill bit used to break a lock on an explosives shed that was burglarized months before the bombing. (This shed was near a farm in Kansas where Nichols worked. In addition, the blasting caps found in Nichols's home match the type stolen in from the shed.)

As in the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the government will rely on the testimony of Michael and Lori Fortier, both of whom say that McVeigh shared with them the details of the bombing conspiracy, including Nichols's alleged role. In addition, Fortier claims that McVeigh told him that Nichols robbed a gun-dealer in Arkansas to get money to buy the bomb's explosives.

Another key element in the government's case against Nichols will be the testimony of Lana Padilla, Nichols's ex-wife and the mother of his teen-age son, Josh. A few months before the bombing, Nichols went on a trip to the Phillipines. He gave Padilla an envelope and told her to open it only if he did not return to the United States within 60 days. As soon as Nichols left, Padilla opened the envelope and found a letter to McVeigh. "As for heat, there's none that I know of," Nichols told McVeigh in the letter. "You're on your own. Go for it!" (The defense thinks this last statement is proof that Nichols backed out of McVeigh's conspiracy plans.) The letter also told Padilla that she would find $20,000 in cash that Nichols was leaving for his family behind a kitchen drawer.

The government will also focus on several statements Nichols apparently made to the FBI: (1) His admission to driving to Oklahoma City on the Sunday before the bombing to pick up McVeigh. Nichols took McVeigh back to Junction City, Kan., where McVeigh was staying at Dreamland Motel; (2) That during the drive back to Kansas, McVeigh told him that "something big is going to happen."; (3) His claim that he lent McVeigh his truck the day before the bombing; (4) Nichols's admission that he knew how to make bombs and that he and McVeigh used to experiment with explosives at his brother Jim's farm in Michigan; (5) That he cleaned out a storage locker for McVeigh the day after the bombing.

Nichols's Defense

Nichols's defense is this: that McVeigh and John Doe 2 are responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing. McVeigh may have used Nichols to help him gathering bomb components and make phone calls, but Nichols did not know about the plan to bomb the Murrah Building. In addition, the defense claims, if Nichols was ever aware of McVeigh's bombing plans, Nichols refused to participate. (Nonetheless, the law requires that people alert authorities if they are aware of a conspiracy. If Nichols knew about the conspiracy to bomb the Murrah Building, he never contacted authorities.)The defense also hopes that Michael Fortier's claims that McVeigh's alleged revelation that Nichols wanted to get out of the bombing plans will also support Nichols's story. Fortier also has said that Nichols was never present when McVeigh described the bombing plot to him.

Nichols's best chance for acquittal may be to convince the jury that he told the FBI the truth during his interrogation. Reportedly, Nichols mentioned McVeigh 67 times during his interrogation. While Nichols admitted that McVeigh told him that "something big is going to happen," he denied having direct knowledge of the bombing conspiracy.

Regarding the alias Nichols used to rent storage sheds for the bomb components, the defense says that Nichols was trying to hide his belongings from his creditors because he had severe delinquent payments on his credit cards and had credit judgments against him. In addition, the defense explains the presence of ammonium nitrate and blasting caps in Nichols's home by saying that he was about to set up a business selling the bomb component at gun shows.

The defense's final argument is that Terry Nichols did not behave like a man who was involved in a federal bombing conspiracy. Just before the bombing, Nichols had bought a house with a 30-year mortgage. He had also just registered a truck and ordered business cards for a military surplus business he was setting up. The defense argues that if Nichols was truly involved in the plot to bomb Oklahoma City, he should have left his family and been on the run.

 

 
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