Terrorist or Family Man?
Terry Nichols goes on trial for the Oklahoma City bombing
After the indictment of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols two years ago, his lawyer, Michael Tigar, brought a series of hand-lettered placards to a meeting with the press. The first sign Tigar held up on that August afternoon read simply, "Terry Nichols Wasn't There."
That is still the first thing Tigar wants people to know about his client as jury selection for Nichols begins in Denver this week. Although Nichols, the alleged accomplice of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, faces the same 11-count murder and conspiracy indictment as did McVeigh, the two cases will be very different. Prosecutors already concede that Nichols, 42, was not in Oklahoma City on the morning of the blast and that he didn't rent the infamous Ryder truck. And while McVeigh imprinted himself on the public consciousness as an angry, unrepentant loner, Nichols has made a less emphatic impression: antigovernment, yes, but also somewhat timid and confused. In part because of this contrast, Nichols, unlike McVeigh, may take the stand in his own defense.
Clash of the titans. Finally, although the Nichols trial will be overseen by the same Judge Richard Matsch who ran McVeigh's swift, no-nonsense proceedings, it will match a new pair of legal combatants: Larry Mackey, a federal prosecutor who was promoted to the lead chair after handling closing arguments against McVeigh, and Michael Tigar, a man considered one of the best defense attorneys in America. Beneath his reserved, almost soothing manner, Mackey, 46, is tenacious and well organized. Tigar, 56, by contrast, is a theatrical defender who won his first case before the Supreme Court at age 29 and has successfully defended clients as diverse as black activist Angela Davis, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and John Demjanjuk, who had been charged with being a Nazi death camp guard.
The combination of weaker evidence and an extremely gifted defense attorney is likely to yield a harder-fought, more compelling courtroom drama than the McVeigh trial. Legal observers grew fond of calling that case a "slam-dunk" for the prosecution; the outcome of this proceeding, they say, is far more in doubt.
For prosecutors, the challenge is to present enough circumstantial evidence to convince a jury that Nichols was involved in planning the bombing even though he was not in Oklahoma City when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown up. They will try to do that by tying the defendant to a series of purchases, break-ins, and phone calls they contend were crucial to the bombing plot.
The centerpiece of the prosecution's case is a 9-1/2-hour statement that Nichols gave to FBI agents after walking into the Herington, Kan., police station two days after the bombing. In the statement, Nichols admitted that he was a buddy of McVeigh's; that he had working knowledge of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer bombs; that he bought ammonium nitrate a month before the bombing; that he lent McVeigh his pickup the day before the bombing; and that, at McVeigh's request, he cleaned out a storage locker the day after the blast. Most important, Nichols admitted meeting McVeigh in Oklahoma City on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1995, three days before the explosion. Nichols claimed that McVeigh had called him at home in Herington from Oklahoma City, complaining of car trouble, and that Nichols had gone to pick him up. But prosecutors say phone records show that in fact McVeigh's call was placed from just blocks away in Herington. They will emphasize this discrepancy, contending that Nichols and McVeigh drove separate cars from Herington to Oklahoma City, stashed one of them there as a future getaway vehicle, and rode back together in Nichols's car.