Oklahoma City Bombing Trials: 1997-98

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Oklahoma City Bombing Trials: 1997-98

Defendants: Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols
Crimes Charged: Murder, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, and destruction by explosive
Chief Defense Lawyers: McVeigh: Stephen Jones and Robert Nigh, Jr.; Nichols: Michael Tigar and Ron Woods
Chief Prosecutors: McVeigh: Joseph Hartzler; Nichols: Larry Mackey
Judge: Richard Matsch
Place: Denver, Colorado
Dates of Trials: McVeigh: March 31-June 13, 1997; Nichols: September 17, 1997-January 7, 1998
Verdicts: McVeigh: Guilty on all counts; Nichols: Guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and involuntary manslaughter, acquitted on all other counts
Sentences: McVeigh: Death by injection; Nichols: Life imprisonment, plus 8 concurrent 6-year terms of imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Although they produced a new law allowing the first television viewing of a federal trial and resulted in a rarely imposed federal death sentence, the trials were noted primarily for prosecutions of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, a state trooper stopped a car without a license plate traveling on an interstate highway near Billings, Oklahoma. Evasive answers about the car's registration and a concealed handgun resulted in the arrest of the driver on weapons and vehicle violations. The routine traffic stop resulted in the arrest, trial, and conviction of two men accused of committing the most destructive terrorist act ever to take place on U.S. soil.

A little more than an hour before Timothy McVeigh was questioned about his missing license plate, the center of Oklahoma City shook with a roar. At 9:02 a.m., a huge homemade bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, transforming the neighborhood into a hell of jagged glass, bleeding survivors, and frantic rescuers trying to reach the dead and the dying in the rubble. A total of 168 people were killed and over 500 were injured in the explosion. The victims included a roomful of children in the building's daycare center, less than 30 feet from the epicenter of the blast.

Despite a national panic that the devastation was caused by international terrorists or drug cartels, authorities quickly decided that the bombing was a singular act of domestic terrorism. Investigators received a tip that a widely distributed sketch of John Doe no. 1, the driver of a Ryder rental truck whose mangled axle was found at the scene, resembled Timothy McVeigh. The FBI checked the national crime computer database and learned that McVeigh was still in jail in Perry, Oklahoma, for the vehicle and weapons violations. On April 21, two days after the explosion, FBI agents swept into Perry and arrested McVeigh on federal charges.

Other suspects included two of McVeigh's ex-U.S. Army buddies. Terry Nichols turned himself in to Herington, Kansas, police when he heard news reports that he was being sought as a material witness. Evidence found at Nichols's house led to him being charged as a coconspirator with McVeigh. The FBI also held Michael Fortier, a hardware store clerk from Kingman, Arizona, with whom McVeigh and Nichols had served in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. All three of the young veterans had obsessions with weapons, ties to antiestablishment militia groups, and a hatred of the federal government.

Oklahoma Grand Jury, Colorado Venue

By the time a grand jury was convened, Fortier and his wife, Lori, had agreed to cooperate with the government. Their testimony, along with the prosecution's evidence and emotional testimony by McVeigh's sister Jennifer, convinced the jury to return an indictment on August 10. Defense attorneys protested that the real bombers might still be at large or could have perished in the explosion.

The indictments against McVeigh and Nichols charged them with one count each of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, and destruction by explosive. Despite the loss of life resulting from the bomb, federal law confined prosecutors to seeking murder charges only in the deaths of federal law enforcement officers. The grand jury returned counts of first-degree murder for each of eight Secret Service, Customs Service, Housing and Urban Development, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were killed. The two defendants would be tried separately. Prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty against both McVeigh and Nichols.

News coverage of the horror in Oklahoma City complicated the task of assembling an unbiased jury. After unsuccessfully trying to arrange a suitable venue in Oklahoma, the trial was assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who moved the case to Denver, Colorado, ruling that McVeigh and Nichols had been "demonized" by media coverage in Oklahoma. Matsch initially barred survivors and victims' family members from attending the trial if they planned to testify. He was later forced to reverse his ruling when Congress passed a law allowing limited public access to the proceedings. Matsch approved a closed-circuit telecast to be shown in a government auditorium in Oklahoma City, but banned the news media from the viewing site.

McVeigh's Trial

Jury selection for McVeigh's trial began on March 31, 1997. When opening statements were made three weeks later, the prosecution charged that Mc-Veigh's hatred for the federal government had escalated into violence after the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993two years to the day before the Oklahoma City bombing. In order to inspire an uprising against the government, McVeigh had parked a Ryder rental truck containing a 4,000-pound homemade bomb outside the Murrah Building in the erroneous belief that it was the headquarters of the agents who had carried out the Waco raid.

The prosecution couldn't produce an eyewitnesses placing McVeigh at the Murrah Building nor was there any direct evidence that he and Nichols had built the bomb. The key and rental paperwork for the Ryder truck had been recovered, but neither McVeigh's nor Nichols's fingerprints were found on them. The circumstantial evidence against McVeigh was stronger. Traces of PETN, a compound used in detonator cord, were found on his jeans, pockets, and a set of earplugs he was carrying when he was arrested. Phone records tied Mc-Veigh and Nichols to purchases of ingredients identical to those used in the bomb.

Although the evidence was circumstantial, the prosecution's case was bolstered by abundant motive for McVeigh's alleged crimes. When he was arrested, antigovernment propaganda found in his car included an excerpt from The Turner Diaries, a white-supremacist novel containing an instructive chapter about blowing UP an FBI building with a bomb-laden truck. His sister Jennifer tearfully recalled McVeigh telling her that "something big" was going to happen in the spring of 1995. She also attributed a letter found in her computer to her brother. "You'll swing in the wind one day for your treasonous attacks against the Constitution of the United States," said the letter, which was written to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms. "Die, you spineless cowardice bastards!"

Testifying under immunity, Lori Fortier recalled McVeigh's visits to the Fortiers' Arizona trailer during which he had described the process of building bombs, saying he intended to blow up a government building. She admitted that she and her husband had hidden and sold guns that McVeigh and Terry Nichols had stolen in Arkansas. She had made a fake identification card for McVeigh, using the name "Robert Kling"; a Ryder truck rental manager identified McVeigh as one "Robert Kling" who had rented the obliterated truck two days before the bombing.

Michael Fortier also recalled McVeigh's bomb-making experiments and testified that he had circled the Murrah Building with McVeigh in December 1994, during a trip to pick up the stolen guns in Kansas. McVeigh had detailed how he planned to blow up the building with a rental truck packed with explosives, hoping to cause a "general uprising in America." When Fortier commented on the potential loss of life, McVeigh allegedly replied that he "considered all those people to be as if they were storm troopers in the movie StarIVars. They might be individually innocent, but because they are part of the evil empire, they were guilty by association." Fortier admitted that he might have prevented the bombing by informing authorities.

McVeigh's defense attorneys did not offer an alibi for their client. Instead, they assailed the Fortiers' credibility, playing FBI wiretaps from the days after the bombing. "I can tell a fable, I can tell stories all day long," Michael Fortier was heard telling his brother. "The less I say now, the bigger the price later." Hoping to undercut the impact of his testimony, the defense portrayed Fortier as a methamphetamine addict and opportunist who was willing to lie to obtain lucrative book and film contracts about the case.

Suggesting that the real bomber might have died in the blast, the defense called a pathologist who testified that an unidentified leg found at the Murrah Building could have belonged to someone carrying a bomb. Scientist Frederic Whitehurst testified that the explosives residue on McVeigh's possessions had been examined during a period when FBI laboratory procedures were so flawed that they were later severely criticized by the Justice Department. Whitehurst admitted, however, that he had no specific knowledge that the evidence in the Oklahoma City cases had been tainted.

After almost two weeks of testimony, on June 2, the jury convicted Mc-Veigh on all 11 counts. During the subsequent penalty phase of the trial, the jury unanimously agreed that McVeigh's actions were distinguished by aggravating factors such as premeditation and intent to kill and consequently recommended a death sentence on June 13. On August 14, Judge Matsch formally sentenced McVeigh to be executed by lethal injection. But it wasn't until June 11, 2001 that this execution finally took place in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Nichols's Trial

When the case against Terry Nichols began on September 17, store clerks, testifying as prosecution witnesses, verified receipts for the purchase of an unusually large amount of fertilizer. Although the clerks could not identify Nichols as the buyer, the receiptswhich had been found in Nichols's homewere for a purchase of two tons of ammonium nitrate, a primary component of the Oklahoma City bomb.

Michael Fortier testified that he had seen explosives in Nichols's pickup truck, but admitted that he had seen his former friend only infrequently before the bombing. During McVeigh's trial, Fortier testified that Nichols attempted to back out of the plot a month before the bombing. "Tim told me that Terry no longer wanted to help him mix the bomb," Fortier had said. "He went on to say that Terry would have to help him because he's in it so far up 'til now." Fortier did not repeat the claim at Nichols's trial nor did he specifically identify Nichols as the accomplice with whom McVeigh claimed to be planning on blowing up a federal building. As McVeigh's attorneys had done, Nichols's lawyers portrayed Michael Fortier as a lying drug addict whose testimony should not be considered credible.

Nichols's ex-wife was called by the defense as a sympathetic witness. When she testified that she had found a letter in which Nichols urged McVeigh to "go for it" five months before the bombing, however, observers wondered if putting her on the stand had been a defense blunder.

Mixed Verdict

On December 23, Nichols was found guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, but was acquitted on the two counts related to using such a weapon. The jury settled on convicting Nichols of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter, rather than murder. It appeared that the jury was certain that Nichols was involved in the plot, but chose to convict him only on the counts for which his responsibility seemed clear.

When the jury met again to consider a sentence for Nichols, however, they could not agree on a punishment. On January 7, 1998, they announced to Judge Matsch that they were deadlocked, thus leaving the sentencing to the judge. After their dismissal, jurors revealed that they felt prosecutors had not conclusively proven the extent to which Nichols was involved in the actual bombing. Without unanimous agreement from the jury, the judge was prevented from imposing a death sentence.

In the months that passed before Nichols's sentencing, McVeigh's attorneys filed an appeal. They claimed there was evidence of juror misconduct and argued that emotional testimony by survivors and victims' family members had prejudiced the jury. The appeal also claimed that Judge Matsch had erred in not allowing testimony about possible alternative antigovernment extremist conspiracy theories and by not giving the jury an option of convicting McVeigh of a lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Michael Fortier was sentenced on May 27 for failing to report McVeigh's and Nichols's criminal intentions, lying to the FBI about the case, and various weapons charges. Despite acknowledgments from the prosecution and the judge crediting Fortier's testimony with significantly helping to convict Mc-Veigh and Nichols, federal sentencing guidelines required that Fortier serve 12 years in prison. Fortier's plea bargain also required him to pay $200,000 in fines, including restitution to the Arkansas gun store owner who had been robbed to finance the plotters' bomb-making activities. In contrast to the silent McVeigh and Nichols, Fortier tearfully apologized after his sentencing. Neither the apology nor the sentence was sufficient for victims and family members who spoke before the sentencing, urging the judge to impose a severe penalty upon the man whose silence had allowed the bombing to take place.

On June 4, 1998, Judge Matsch imposed the maximum sentence of life without parole for Nichols's conviction on conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Nichols was also sentenced to eight concurrent six-year terms for involuntary manslaughter. The judge accused Nichols of attempting to destroy the very institution on whose behalf he had adopted violence.

"What he did was participate with others in a conspiracy that would seek to destroy all of the things that the Constitution protects," Judge Matsch said. "Terry Nichols has proven to be an enemy of the Constitution, and accordingly the sentence I am going to impose will be for the duration of his life."

Although Nichols's sentence appeared to spare his life, he still faced a second trial. Prior to his sentencing, Nichols had rejected an offer of leniency by Judge Matsch in return for information about the bombing, saying that it might put him in jeopardy if the state of Oklahoma pursued charges against him. As expected, in March 1999, the Oklahoma County district attorney charged Nichols with 160 counts of murder for the deaths of the victims who were not federal law enforcement officers. The possibility that he could be executed for his part in the Oklahoma City disaster remained.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hamm, Mark S. Apocalypse in Oklahoma. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Kenworthy, Tom and Lois Romano. "McVeigh Guilty on All 11 Counts." Washington Post (June 3, 1997): Al.

Thomas, Jo. "Friend Says McVeigh Wanted Bombing to Start an 'Uprising.'" New York Times (May 13, 1997): Al, 14.

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Oklahoma City Bombing Trials: 1997-98