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Background: The Terry Nichols Trial

January 7, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we get more on today’s developments from Court TV’s Tim Sullivan. Tim, describe the scene in the courtroom this morning.

TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: Well, Elizabeth, first of all, this proceeding this morning took most people by surprise. At the end of the day yesterday when the judge dismissed the jury, he told the jury and everybody in court at that time that there was a note from the jury that came in at 15 minutes before 5 o’clock local time last night, and he said, “I have to confer with the attorneys, and I will answer this note tomorrow morning.” He then met in chambers last night after court with the attorneys and with Terry Nichols.

So most of us didn’t find out until this morning, about 8:15 AM, that there was going to be an open court session at 8:30 AM. So when we went into court this morning, we anticipated that the judge would be answering some kind of note from the jury. But he never disclosed what the note said. And he did disclose it, of course, when he convened court, and he answered it. And his answer was that the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether Terry Nichols had intent to kill anybody when he joined the conspiracy. And, as the judge said, “You are, therefore, in effect, choosing the third option on the sentencing form, which is that the court will impose sentence.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did Judge Matsch say about why he didn’t send them back? Because some jurors, according to the jury forewoman, wanted to go back and have some more time. Did he explain why he didn’t send them back to deliberate some more?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, the judge said that he had discussed it with the attorneys, and he said, “I have decided, without real disagreement,” he said, “that you’ve had adequate opportunity to decide.” He said, “I’m not going to require you to go further.” He then–the jury forewoman later revealed that after court, when the judge met privately with the jury before sending them home, he said to them, “There comes a point where it’s no longer deliberations, and it’s pressure.” So apparently, the judge decided that he would be putting too much pressure on the jury to force them to continue. They were clear in the note they sent last night that they were not going to reach unanimity on the question of intent. And, according to the law, if they didn’t find intent to kill, they could not go further. So–and the judge said that there was no real disagreement among the lawyers, no objections, for example, from the prosecutors to the judge halting the deliberations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did Terry Nichols react to this?

TIM SULLIVAN: Terry Nichols did not react much at all. He watched the judge carefully and listened to everything the judge said throughout the proceeding. He looked at the jury a couple of times, but he didn’t show much emotion. There were no tears of relief or anything like that. There were some tears among some of his family members in the gallery. After the judge sent the jury out and talked to the lawyers for a little while, when the judge left the courtroom, Terry Nichols’ lawyers, his defense team–there are about six of them–all then went in one after another, embraced Terry Nichols. He looked very relieved. As he left the courtroom, he nodded and waved at his wife and his family that were in the courtroom. But there were no tears or relief. He didn’t look particularly pleased.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did victims in the courtroom react?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, the victims were extremely disappointed. The families from Oklahoma City, who have been here for this trial, several of them were in tears, as they left the courtroom. The prosecutors were consoling, some of them, as they left the courtroom, but there were not as many here as there would have been if this proceeding this morning were not held on such short notice. Normally, that courtroom would have been packed, and normally there are thirty to forty Oklahomans in the courtroom every day. This morning there were, I don’t think more than a dozen or fifteen Oklahomans in the courtroom because most of them simply hadn’t got the word that the judge was going to convene court.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are Judge Matsch’s options now?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, that’s open to debate, Elizabeth. The federal sentencing guidelines are like an encyclopedia, and no two attorneys seem to agree on what they say or what they mean. What will happen now is that the judge will get briefs from each side telling him what their interpretation of the federal sentencing guidelines are. The government’s position is that the minimum number of years the judge must give Terry Nichols on the conspiracy count is 20 years. And they will argue that he can give Terry Nichols life, which in the federal system would be life without parole. The defense will, no doubt, argue that the guidelines provide for a much lesser sentence, but they haven’t said precisely what their position will be. The government will also argue that the judge can run the eight convictions for manslaughter consecutively; therefore, adding on another 48 years, if he wants to, to whatever he gives Terry Nichols for conspiracy, and, again, the defense will argue that he can’t do that; that because this was one crime, those sentences shouldn’t run consecutively. All that will happen at a sentencing hearing, which will probably not happen until at least late February.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, Tim, I want to go back to some of the things that the jury forewoman said and ask you a couple of questions about it, covering some points that we weren’t able to put into our excerpts. What were the strongest points of the defense, according to the jury forewoman?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, she pointed out a couple of things, Elizabeth. She said, for example, that the government dropped the ball in searching for other people who might have been involved in this. She said that she believed that the government just stopped looking for people once they had Nichols and McVeigh in custody. This was precisely the defense argument in this case. Michael Tigar and Ron Woods on the defense team argued strongly that there was a John Doe Two, perhaps a John Doe Three, and a John Doe Four, that several other people were involved in this, and that the government just wasn’t interested in finding them. This juror is at least one juror who accepted that.

She also pointed out that the evidence was highly circumstantial; that there was no direct evidence, as she put it, linking Terry Nichols to anything involving the actual commission of this crime. I think what she’s referring to there is several things. For example, Terry Nichols was accused of buying two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which the government claims was the main component of the bomb. Well, the two salesmen who sold that fertilizer came into court and testified, and they could not identify Terry Nichols as the man who bought the fertilizer. They gave a description that seemed pretty close to Terry Nichols, but their description included a person who did not wear glasses, and Terry Nichols, apparently, always wears glasses. Also, Nichols used an alias, according to the government, when he bought that fertilizer, an alias he had used on other occasions. But the jury forewoman pointed out that the defense argued that Tim McVeigh had used the same alias, or at least an alias with the same last night, on other occasions. So that was the kind of evidence that was circumstantial, and several of the jurors obviously were not willing to accept it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we heard some of her negative comments about the prosecution, but she did say the prosecution were very good lawyers, that they had done what they should do, while also being critical of some of their work. What was she most critical of?

TIM SULLIVAN: I think her criticism was mostly directed at the FBI and their investigation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did she say about that?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, what she said was, you know, first that they didn’t look for other suspects; but then she went on and talked about Terry Nichols’ interrogation, and she complained, as the defense lawyers had, that they did not tape record the nine-hour interrogation with Terry Nichols. She said, you know, we have these notes from the interrogation, an FBI agent’s notes, but they were not complete. They didn’t cover what would have been nine hours of interrogation. And she said it was an arrogance on the part of the FBI not to tape the interviews that they conducted not only with Terry Nichols but with other witnesses. She talked about problems in the FBI lab that the defense pointed out. There was a drill, for example, taken from Terry Nichols’ home. The government says it was the same drill used to rob explosives, to break a lock and steal explosives from a rock quarry, explosives that were used later in the bomb, according to the government. She said, well, you know, the defense proved that that drill was caught in a flood at the FBI lab and was damaged and rusty and everything else. So I think she was much more critical of the FBI than she was of the prosecutors.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, Tim Sullivan, thanks very much. businesses.