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Oklahoma City Bombing Trials: 1997-98

Oklahoma Grand Jury, Colorado Venue, Mcveigh's Trial, Nichols's Trial, Mixed Verdict

Defendants: Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols
Crimes Charged: Murder, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, and destruction by explosive
Chief Defense Lawyers: McVeigh: Stephen Jones and Robert Nigh, Jr.; Nichols: Michael Tigar and Ron Woods
Chief Prosecutors: McVeigh: Joseph Hartzler; Nichols: Larry Mackey
Judge: Richard Matsch
Place: Denver, Colorado
Dates of Trials: McVeigh: March 31-June 13, 1997; Nichols: September 17, 1997-January 7, 1998
Verdicts: McVeigh: Guilty on all counts; Nichols: Guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and involuntary manslaughter, acquitted on all other counts
Sentences: McVeigh: Death by injection; Nichols: Life imprisonment, plus 8 concurrent 6-year terms of imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Although they produced a new law allowing the first television viewing of a federal trial and resulted in a rarely imposed federal death sentence, the trials were noted primarily for prosecutions of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, a state trooper stopped a car without a license plate traveling on an interstate highway near Billings, Oklahoma. Evasive answers about the car's registration and a concealed handgun resulted in the arrest of the driver on weapons and vehicle violations. The routine traffic stop resulted in the arrest, trial, and conviction of two men accused of committing the most destructive terrorist act ever to take place on U.S. soil.

A little more than an hour before Timothy McVeigh was questioned about his missing license plate, the center of Oklahoma City shook with a roar. At 9:02 A.M., a huge homemade bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, transforming the neighborhood into a hell of jagged glass, bleeding survivors, and frantic rescuers trying to reach the dead and the dying in the rubble. A total of 168 people were killed and over 500 were injured in the explosion. The victims included a roomful of children in the building's daycare center, less than 30 feet from the epicenter of the blast.

Despite a national panic that the devastation was caused by international terrorists or drug cartels, authorities quickly decided that the bombing was a singular act of domestic terrorism. Investigators received a tip that a widely distributed sketch of John Doe no. 1, the driver of a Ryder rental truck whose mangled axle was found at the scene, resembled Timothy McVeigh. The FBI checked the national crime computer database and learned that McVeigh was still in jail in Perry, Oklahoma, for the vehicle and weapons violations. On April 21, two days after the explosion, FBI agents swept into Perry and arrested McVeigh on federal charges.

Other suspects included two of McVeigh's ex-U.S. Army buddies. Terry Nichols turned himself in to Herington, Kansas, police when he heard news reports that he was being sought as a material witness. Evidence found at Nichols's house led to him being charged as a coconspirator with McVeigh. The FBI also held Michael Fortier, a hardware store clerk from Kingman, Arizona, with whom McVeigh and Nichols had served in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. All three of the young veterans had obsessions with weapons, ties to antiestablishment militia groups, and a hatred of the federal government.

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