December 24, 1997
The jurors in the Terry Nichols bombing trial found Nichols guilty on one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and on eight counts of involuntary manslaughter, but they found him "not guilty" of using a weapon of mass destruction and of destruction by explosive.
MARGARET WARNER: The Nichols verdict and aftermath. Today, a federal judge rejected defense arguments that Terry Nichols should be spared a possible death sentence. Yesterday, the jury rendered a mixed verdict on charges that Nichols helped Timothy McVeigh blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Jurors found Nichols guilty on one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and on eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. They found him "not guilty" of using a weapon of mass destruction and of destruction by explosive. We begin our coverage with last night's reaction to the verdict from some victims' relatives and survivors of the 1995 explosion.
GLENNA RILEY, Bombing Survivor: I am so relieved that they did come up with a verdict before the Christmas holiday really actually got to us. My first reaction was, oh, no, they're letting him off easy, but I think they worked with what they had.
JANNIE COVERDALE, Bombing Victims' Grandmother: You sat in a courtroom just like I did. You heard the government prove that Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh conspired for seven months to blow up that building. In my book that's first degree murder. I don't know where the jury came from. I don't know what they were thinking about, but that's first degree murder.
MARSHA KITE, Bombing Victim's Mother: Well, we're glad that they came up with the conspiracy charges but very disappointed on the involuntary manslaughter. I mean, he was with that man to gather the stuff--I mean, they were taking things out to Arizona that they had robbed there in Kansas in the storage lockers, and the seven months that the prosecution, I mean, they need a Congressional Medal of Honor for the way they conducted themselves in the trial and how they laid things out. And I cannot believe the jurors on the eight counts. I mean, Diane Leonard was in that courtroom, and she lost her husband, and that must have been a slap in her face.
SHARON MADEARIS, Widow: At least he was found guilty of conspiracy. Everybody knows he helped build the bomb.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'll have to live with it, but I wasn't satisfied.
AREN ALMON KOK, Mother of Victim: I'm glad. I'm glad that he got found guilty of something because I was afraid there for a while he was going to get acquitted. DR. PAUL HEATH, Bombing Survivor: It's wonderful to have a decision today by the jury. It's one step down the road to justice that I welcome it. And I know that it's been difficult for the jury to weigh all of that evidence. But they certainly have done their duty and, as I understand the verdict, they have found Terry Nichols guilty of conspiracy, and that is sufficient to give whatever penalty this jury believes he's earned.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, more on the verdict, the trial, and the upcoming sentencing phase from two observers who periodically have joined us during both the Nichols and Timothy McVeigh trials. Tim Sullivan, senior correspondent for Court TV, and Dan Recht, former president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and a practicing attorney in Denver. We had hoped Jim Fleissner, a former federal prosecutor, could also be with us tonight, but due to a snowstorm, he cannot. Welcome, gentlemen. Tim Sullivan, take us back to last night in the courtroom and give us the scene when the verdict was announced.
TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: Well, Margaret, when the verdict was announced, first of all, for Terry Nichols there was virtually no reaction on the part of Terry Nichols. He sat very stoically watching the judge while the judge read the verdict which took several minutes. It's a long indictment and a long verdict for him. But we didn't see any reaction from Terry Nichols at all, that we could discern, until after it was all over and the jury had been let out of the room, and he was speaking with his attorneys before the marshals took him away. And at that point, he looked extremely upset. His face was flushed red. He looked like somebody who'd been punched in the stomach and lost his wind. Terry Nichols' family was in the courtroom during the reading of the verdict. His mother and father, his sister, and his brother were all in the front row, watching. They also did not betray any emotion really as that verdict was read. They were very strong. None of them was crying, and there was very little reaction from them. The jury looked extremely upset--most of them. Two of the young men on the jury sat with their heads bowed through the entire reading of the verdict and only looked up to answer yes when they were asked, "Is this your verdict?" during the polling of the jury. One of the women on the jury sat almost with her back turned toward the court throughout the entire reading of the verdict, and her head down, resting on her hand. She was clearly very upset. Two of the women on the jury were crying after the jury was polled when it was just about all over. In the gallery the Oklahomans, of course, were extremely upset. There were not as many of them there as there have been throughout the trial. Many went home for the Christmas holidays. But there were more than a dozen Oklahomans there. Many of them were crying. They were extremely disappointed in this verdict. The attorneys on both sides looked almost like they didn't know how to react. They sat very stoically, each side, and they--we didn't see the prosecutors congratulating each other in court after the jury left, as we saw after the verdict in the Timothy McVeigh trial.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan Recht, how do you interpret the split verdict that they rendered?
DAN RECHT, Defense Attorney: Well, first of all, I interpret it as a huge victory for the defense. There's no question about this. I mean, from the beginning the prosecution has wanted to get a death penalty against Mr. Nichols. And this makes it somewhat clear that they're not going to get that. So I--despite the public face they're putting on, I would suggest that they're pretty disappointed. And the defense, on the other hand, I would think is very happy because Michael Tigar from the day he took this case, his job has been to save the life of Terry Nichols, and it seems as though he's gone a long way down that road towards saving his life.
MARGARET WARNER: But the split verdict, itself, what does that tell you about what the jurors decided?
DAN RECHT: I think the jurors were compromising. They clearly did not believe that Terry Nichols was as involved as Mr. McVeigh, and while it's a compromise, I don't think the verdicts are inconsistent. What they said is that Mr. Nichols was involved in a conspiracy to use or build a bomb at some point, and at a later point, seemingly, he did some act that was involved in these people dying. But interestingly, they clearly said that he was not involved at the end because they said--when they said that he wasn't guilty of first degree murder, they were saying that Mr. Nichols did not intend for anybody to die, did not deliberate to have anybody die, did not mean to have anybody die, did not know that anybody was going to die. That's basically what involuntary manslaughter is. I mean, to give you a sense of what kind of crime it is, involuntary manslaughter by itself, there is a maximum prison sentence of only six years.
MARGARET WARNER: Tim, what instructions did the judge give the jury on how to determine between murder and involuntary manslaughter?
TIM SULLIVAN: First degree murder, which his the highest count in this indictment related to the individual deaths, is premeditated, intentional murder. And the judge was very clear about that. Second degree murder is--requires a much lower level of intent. It does not require the same level of premeditation as first degree murder. For the involuntary manslaughter the judge told them that they did not have to find any premeditation to convict Terry Nichols on those counts, and he described manslaughter to them as a lawful act which results in death but that the death is not necessarily foreseen by the act.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, staying with you, Tim, tell us about the hearing this morning. This is when the defense first came in and essentially said the judge should not even let the jury consider the death penalty. On what grounds did they argue that? What did the prosecution say?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, defense basically had two overall points to make. One of them was Mr. Tigar argued that the jury did not find that Terry Nichols intended to kill any of the people who died. Mr. Tigar argued that in order for the death penalty to kick in there has to be intentional premeditated murder, and the jury acquitted him of the intentional premeditated murders. He was essentially arguing that the first count on conspiracy does not require a finding of intent to commit murder. He was also arguing that the verdict is inconsistent. He was arguing, as he began to argue yesterday right after the--right after the verdict was read--he said, Given the acquittals on counts two and three, the two counts related to use of the bomb, the government can't go forward with the penalty phase. So that was the basis of his argument. I don't think he expected to win that argument, and I don't think he ever expected that Judge Matsch was going to stop this proceeding and not go forward. But just by convincing the judge to allow him to put that argument on the record this morning, he's made a great record for appeal, and he's preserved an issue that could become very important to Terry Nichols later on, depending on what the sentence eventually is in this case.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan Recht, as a matter of precedent, was Mike Tigar right? Has anyone ever been sentenced to death on say a conspiracy charge, rather than on say first degree murder?
DAN RECHT: Well, the history of the death penalty in our country, since it was re-instituted back in the late 60's, is that nobody--nobody has been executed, except for first degree murder, so not for anything else. And here, of course, Mr. Nichols was convicted of not first degree murder but manslaughter. Now, your question is: What about the conspiracy to build this weapon of mass destruction? That's never been tested by the Supreme Court, or never been tested in the Supreme Court, and so we don't know--
MARGARET WARNER: And explain that. Just let me--because this is a fairly new law--it's an anti-terrorism, federal anti-terrorism law.
DAN RECHT: Right. There are new laws out of the U.S. Congress that allow for the death penalty for some non-first degree murder offenses, including this one. And so whether that is constitutional or not to give somebody the death penalty for other than first degree murder has yet to be tested in the Supreme Court.
MARGARET WARNER: I see. All right, Tim, now tell us about what's going to happen Monday. The jurors are going to come in. What are going to be their options? What are they going to be presented with in the way of further testimony?
TIM SULLIVAN: Well, as they go into the death penalty phase beginning Monday, they are going to have three options when they go back into deliberations after that phase ends. They can sentence Terry Nichols to death, or they can sentence Terry Nichols to life in prison without the possibility of ever being released, or the third option, which is a sentence less than life without parole, but that sentence would have to be determined by the judge. If they go for that option, it goes back to Judge Matsch. He would hold a sentencing hearing later, presumably, at which lawyers for each side would argue what the federal guidelines say the sentence should be. And the judge would have to make the decision. What the jury is in for, however, for the next two weeks probably, maybe a little bit less than that, is some heart rending testimony that they're going to find extremely upsetting. This trial was not as emotionally packed as the McVeigh trial was. The prosecutors were much more subdued this time around in eliciting graphic testimony of the terror and chaos and blood at the Murrah Building. This time they're going to bring in this phase--they're going to bring in survivors of the bombing. They're going to bring in relatives of people who were killed in the bombing. They're going to bring in rescue workers. And those people are all going to talk about how the bombing had an impact on their lives, victim impact statements. They'll talk about how their lives have been changed forever and in some of them destroyed by the loss of loved ones. From the rescue workers we heard in the first trial some very compelling, upsetting stories about people still having nightmares, about being in therapy three years later because of just the horrible things they saw, having to carry dead children out of that building, et cetera. So that's going to be very difficult for the jury. That's all put on to try to convince the jury that they should execute Terry Nichols. Mr. Nichols' lawyers will bring in friends and family members of Terry Nichols, perhaps former army buddies and supervisors of his, perhaps business associates. They will all try to convince this jury that Terry Nichols' life still has value and should be spared, even though he was convicted of the conspiracy count. We may hear from his son, Joshua Nichols, and witnesses like that.
MARGARET WARNER: Tim, briefly, before we leave, I want to get you both on this question. You heard some of the victims' relatives say they couldn't understand the difference in the verdicts between McVeigh and Nichols in both these trials. What do you think was the most essential difference? I mean, was it a question of evidence? Was it the instructions to the jury? Was it the approach taken by the lawyers? What was the biggest difference?
TIM SULLIVAN: The biggest difference, I think, Margaret, was the evidence. You know, Timothy McVeigh was arrested 70 miles North of Oklahoma City, 70 miles after--70 minutes after the bombing--with explosives residue all over his clothes. Terry Nichols wasn't in Oklahoma City. Nobody saw him building the bomb where it was alleged to have been built. Nobody saw him or identified as the man who allegedly bought the fertilizer that was used in the bomb. There were just no eyewitnesses in this case to tie Terry Nichols directly to the crime. The only evidence of intent came from Michael Fortier. He was discredited.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Dan Recht on that point. What do you think was the biggest difference between these two cases, two trials?
DAN RECHT: I think the biggest difference was the amount of evidence between one and the other. I think what's important is to look at these two trials together and see what we have in our country is a jury system that really works. You have the McVeigh jury that said, look, we're convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that he did this, and they convicted him, and they said he should be put to death. And in this case a jury looked at evidence with regard to Mr. Nichols and said, as they should have, look, we tried, we looked at the evidence, we followed what the judge said, and we have reasonable doubts with regard to whether it's first degree murder and with regard to second degree murder. So--and they didn't find him guilty of those--so when you look at a whole of these two trials--even though there's different verdicts--I think we are looking at a jury system that works very well in our country and one that we all as Americans should be very proud of.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Well, thank you both very much, Tim and Dan.