Accomplice faces death penalty for Oklahoma City bombing

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The Independent US

A jury in rural Oklahoma found Terry Nichols guilty on 161 charges of first-degree murder yesterday, making him eligible for the death penalty for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, even though he did not detonate the truck bomb himself and was 200 miles away at home in Kansas when the devastating explosion took place.

A jury in rural Oklahoma found Terry Nichols guilty on 161 charges of first-degree murder yesterday, making him eligible for the death penalty for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, even though he did not detonate the truck bomb himself and was 200 miles away at home in Kansas when the devastating explosion took place.

It took just five hours for the jury to return its verdict after a two-month trial in which evidence in key portions of the defence case - arguing that Nichols was a bit-player in a much broader conspiracy - was withheld by the judge. The six men and six women on the jury in the small town of McAlester, home of the trial, appeared to be untroubled by the fact that first-degree murder charges are almost never applied in cases where the defendant did not personally carry out the killing.

Instead, they sided unanimously with prosecuting attorney Sandra Elliott, who said in her summing up: "Just because he didn't drive the truck it doesn't mean he's not guilty."

Reporters in the courtroom said the jurors were smiling and nodding their heads as Ms Elliott spoke. Family members of the victims were elated with the outcome, making little secret of the fact that they were interested in seeing Nichols sent to the execution chamber, whatever the merits of the case.

The trial was controversial from the outset, since Nichols was previously convicted in federal court on conspiracy charges relating to the eight federal employees who died in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and is already serving a life sentence in a maximum security facility with no parole.

Oklahoma state prosecutors decided to reopen the case and try Nichols for the other 160 deaths, plus one unborn foetus, specifically in the hope of securing a death sentence. That now seems more than likely, as the same jury moves to the penalty phase of the Nichols trial, which is expected to last several more weeks.

Several observers have complained that the trial smacked more of a lust for vengeance than a dispassionate search for the truth. The trial venue was moved from Oklahoma City on the grounds that a fair hearing would have been impossible, but it is likely that local sensibilities in McAlester were just as crudely hostile to a man associated with the most deadly peacetime attack on US soil before 11 September 2001.

Nobody doubts that Nichols was close to Timothy McVeigh, the man labelled as the chief architect of the bombing, who was executed three years ago, or that he helped McVeigh hatch the plot and obtain the ingredients for the fertiliser-based bomb.

But government documents and witness testimony gathered since the original investigation have suggested that may have been all he did, and that McVeigh belonged to a much broader conspiracy of white supremacist extremists centered on a neo-Nazi bank robbery gang. Several people were seen with McVeigh in Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing, although none has been conclusively identified.

Defence efforts to introduce evidence about the bank robbery gang and to put the gang's ringleader on the stand were rejected by Judge Steven Taylor, who said the connection amounted to no more than hearsay. He also rejected a defence motion arguing that the case should be thrown out because of a pattern of misrepresentations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and withholding of exculpatory documents.

Defence lawyers were left alluding to shadowy figures they could not name and complaining of official "manipulation, betrayal and overreaching" - not a message destined to make much headway in rural Oklahoma.

As Paul Howell, who lost his daughter Karen in the blast, told reporters outside the courthouse: "This is a little different part of the country. This is what they call Little Dixie. They take care of their own around here, but the thing about it is, they do believe in justice."

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