McALESTER, Okla. (AP) – The bombing that killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City federal building may seem like ancient history to many, but not to those touched by the blast – or to state prosecutors who want to put Terry Nichols to death for the crime.
Nearly a decade after the bombing, a state murder trial is set to begin March 1 for Nichols, 48, who already is serving a life prison sentence without chance of parole on a federal conviction.
“I suspect a lot of people have already put this in the history book. But for those who are involved, that history will never end,” said Roy Sells, whose wife, Lee, was one of those killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane has said Nichols should be held accountable for the deaths of victims who were not part of the federal prosecution.
Nichols’ 1997 conviction on federal conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter charges involved only the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers. The state charges involve the other 160 victims and the unborn child of one of those killed.
“I do really feel like we need to go through it again,” said Jeanine Gist, whose daughter, Karen Gist Carr, was killed. “I don’t feel like we got justice the first time.”
However, most Oklahomans feel differently, according to two polls. Many feel the expense and turmoil of another trial is unnecessary, given Nichols’ life sentence.
Nichols has offered to plead no contest if prosecutors agree not to seek the death penalty, but Lane has indicated he will not agree to that.
Nichols was at his home in Herington, Kan., the day the bomb exploded. But prosecutors allege that he and Timothy McVeigh worked side by side to acquire materials and build the 4,000-pound bomb of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Prosecutors said the bombing was a twisted plot to avenge the FBI siege two years earlier at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas.
McVeigh was convicted on federal murder charges and executed in June 2001.
The state charges against Nichols were filed in 1999 by former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy, who said he was not satisfied with the outcome of the federal trial.
Lane, who took over in 2001 after Macy retired, considered dismissing the charges out of concern for the expense of the case and the toll it would take on the victims’ families. More than $4 million has been spent on defense, prosecution and security costs.
But after meeting privately with survivors and victims’ relatives, Lane announced his decision to proceed on Sept. 5, 2001 – one week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Before those attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst act of terrorism ever in the United States.
“Accountability to the laws of the state of Oklahoma demands we stay the course,” Lane said at the time.
A gag order prevents Lane from commenting further.
A recent Tulsa World poll found that 70 percent of Oklahomans feel the expense of a state trial is unnecessary since Nichols is already serving a life sentence. An earlier poll, for The Oklahoman, found a majority of state residents would prefer a plea bargain to a trial.
However, many survivors and victims’ family members believe that death by lethal injection is the only appropriate punishment for Nichols.
“In this country we execute people for committing a single murder,” said Jannie Coverdale, whose two grandsons were killed in the blast. “If Terry Nichols does not get the death penalty, we might as well abolish the death penalty in this country.”
Pretrial issues have delayed the state case’s progress. Nichols’ preliminary hearing was postponed seven times before he was bound over for trial in May.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied a defense request last year for an eighth postponement and expressed frustration over the high cost and slow pace of bringing Nichols to trial.
“I think a lot of people in the state of Oklahoma and elsewhere are outraged that it has taken so much time,” Justice Ralph Hodges said.
02/22/04 13:18 EST
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press