THE CASE AGAINST NICHOLS
December 2, 1997
After 20 days of testimony from 98 witnesses, the prosecution has rested its case against Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's alleged co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing. Phil Ponce speaks with Court TV's Tim Sullivan for an update on the trial.
PHIL PONCE: After 20 days of testimony from 98 witnesses, federal prosecutors today rested their case against Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's alleged co-conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. For more on the trial we're joined by Court TV Correspondent Tim Sullivan. Tim, thank you for joining us.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 4, 1997
Testimony begins at the Terry Nichols trial.
September 29, 1997
Jury selection begins for the Terry Nichols trial.
August 26, 1997
Betty Ann Bowser explores how Joseph Hartzler is reacquainting himself.
June 13, 1997:
A Denver jury sentenced Timothy McVeigh to death.
June 11, 1997:
The parents of Timothy McVeigh plead for his life.
June 6, 1997:
Victims' families discuss their reactions to the tragedy.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of law.
CourtTV archive of transcripts and documents from the Nichols trial.
CourtTV archive of transcripts and documents from the McVeigh trial.
TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: Thank you.
PHIL PONCE: Who did the prosecutors put on today to end their case against Mr. Nichols?
TIM SULLIVAN: Phil, they ended their case with Capt. Matthew Cooper of the U.S. Marine Corps. He was in the Murrah Building when the bomb went off. He described the explosion. He was in the recruiting office there, and he talked about a massive explosion. He said, "It was a horrendous sound that shook the building and the whole building was coming down around us." He described his own heroic efforts to pull three people out of that building, one of them a woman who he carried down the stairs, the crumbled staircases, on his shoulders. He went back and helped more people out. He identified two Marines who were killed in the bombing, and he was the final witness. After his testimony, the government put up charts that showed the jury exactly where in the Murrah Building each of the 168 victims were when the bomb went off.
PHIL PONCE: Tim, in the past 20 days of testimony, what were the main points that the prosecution made trying to link Mr. Nichols with the bombing?
"Anything that links Nichols to McVeigh is bad for Nichols."
TIM SULLIVAN: Over and over again they first linked Terry Nichols with Timothy McVeigh. These jurors know that Timothy McVeigh was convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing. They know that he was sentenced to death for that bombing. So anything that links Nichols to McVeigh is bad for Nichols. They linked them with phone records, with mutual acquaintances, with documents, with Timothy McVeigh having given the address of James Nichols' brother as his home address on a driver's license, for example, things like that. They also brought in Terry Nichols' ex-wife, Lana Padilla, to testify. And she told the jury that Nichols--when he left the country to visit the Philippines a few months before the bombing--left her two letters. One of them was a letter to Tim McVeigh that she was only supposed to open if Terry Nichols did not return. She opened it as soon as he left. And in that letter to Timothy McVeigh there were very cryptic messages, so to speak, to Tim McVeigh. Most incriminating was the ending of the letter where Terry Nichols wrote to McVeigh: "You're on your own. Go for it. As for heat, there's none that I know of."
PHIL PONCE: As far as the defense, they started their case today. Who did they put on today?
A Ryder truck and a velvety deep voice throw the government's theory into question.
TIM SULLIVAN: They opened their case, Phil, with witnesses who will raise the specter of John Doe II, the suspect who the FBI was looking for all over this country in the days and weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, but a suspect who was never found. They called witnesses from the Dreamland Motel, which is where Timothy McVeigh stayed for four days immediately before the Oklahoma City bombing. These witnesses testified that they saw this John Doe II suspect perhaps at the Dreamland Motel in the days that McVeigh was staying there. One motel manager said she heard Timothy McVeigh speaking to someone with a velvety deep voice in the middle of the night in his room when he was only supposed to be staying there by himself. They also called witnesses who saw a Ryder truck around the Dreamland Motel before Timothy McVeigh rented the bomb truck, which raises a question about were there two trucks. Is the government's very theory of how this was done, accurate?
PHIL PONCE: So the point of the John Doe business, the implication is that there really--the defense's point of view is that there really was a John Doe; that it wasn't Mr. Nichols, and that the government simply hasn't found the right person.
TIM SULLIVAN: Precisely so, Phil. Michael Tigar told this jury in his opening statement, Michael Tigar being the lead defense lawyer, "We will prove to you that Timothy McVeigh did this with accomplices, but those accomplices did not include Terry Nichols.
Was the FBI lab work competent?
PHIL PONCE: And is the defense expected to mount a serious attack against the competence of the lab work done by the FBI to support this evidence against Mr. Nichols?
TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, they are, and they began that effort over the past couple of days with cross-examination of Steven Burmeister, the chemist in the FBI lab who told the jury that he found crystals of ammonium nitrate at the bomb scene, ammonium nitrate being a component of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which the government claims Terry Nichols purchased two tons of several months before the bombing. On cross-examination the defense brought out through Mr. Burmeister that the evidence may have been mishandled. These crystals that he says he found of ammonium nitrate mysteriously disappeared at the FBI laboratory, and most importantly, they brought out evidence or testimony that superiors in the FBI determined or concluded that this was an ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb before the testing at the lab was even completed.
PHIL PONCE: Tim, what differences have you noted, either in tone or in content, between this trial and the trial against Timothy McVeigh?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, on the prosecutors' side the trial against McVeigh had much more emotional impact. The testimony of the victims and survivors from the bombing at the Murrah Building were much more emotional. The jurors were often in tears during that trial. People in the gallery were often in tears. There was very little of that this time. The judges apparently limited the prosecutors in how much he would let them lead these survivors into harrowing detailed stories about the graphic violence and the consequences of the bombing. On the defense side Michael Tigar and his team of defense attorneys is more aggressive and seems more confident than Timothy McVeigh's lawyers were. The government's case here is not that strong, so they have more to work with than McVeigh's lawyers.
PHIL PONCE: How about the defendant's demeanor? In the McVeigh case he reportedly showed very little emotion, seemed passive. How about in this case with Mr. Nichols?
Nichols displays emotions the McVeigh trial never saw.
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, Terry Nichols, to begin with, he's older than Tim McVeigh. He's about 43 years old right now. He looks like a regular middle-class kind of guy. He dresses well. He wears a blazer and a dickey under his shirt every day. He doesn't look like a threatening person, the way Tim McVeigh did, with his military sort of manner and his short crewcut But, more importantly than that, Terry Nichols has shown emotion, very strong emotion, in this trial. During the testimony of his ex-wife, when she was talking about the son they have in common and how much Terry Nichols loved that son and took care of him, Terry Nichols began to cry, and he was weeping very strongly for several minutes during that testimony. And that is the kind of thing that the jury in the McVeigh trial never saw.
PHIL PONCE: What kind of--is there any way to read the jury as to how they reacted to the prosecution's case?
TIM SULLIVAN: They've been very interested, very attentive. There's one gentleman who seems to nod off once in a while during this sort of dull, scientific forensic evidence. But on the most part they have been very interested, very attentive, and they also seem to be very taken with Michael Tigar. Some of them seem to be amused and to enjoy watching Michael Tigar cross-examine witnesses.
PHIL PONCE: Tim Sullivan, thank you for joining us, and thank you for standing in the snow.
TIM SULLIVAN: Sure.