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Terry Nichols Trial Begins In Oklahoma Bombing Case

By Lois Romano and Tom Kenworthy
The Washington Post
DENVER

The government opened its case against Terry Nichols Monday by bluntly conceding that the accused Oklahoma City bomber was hundreds of miles away from the crime scene on the day a massive bomb destroyed a downtown federal building, killing 168 people. But a federal prosecutor insisted that Nichols worked "side by side" with convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh "in their plan of violence."

"This is a case about two men who conspired to murder innocent people," prosecutor Larry Mackey told the jury in his opening statement, two and a half years after the 4,000 lb. truck bomb blew apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

"The evidence will prove that [they] together carefully and methodically planned when they would launch a violent act against the United States of America," said Mackey. "On that morning Terry Nichols was homeŠ in Herington Kansas with his wife and daughterŠat a very safe distance. Š And Terry Nichols planned it just that way."

Nichols' attorney Michael Tigar countered the government's charges by accusing the FBI of distorting evidence to arrest and convict his client, and suggested that it was the elusive John Doe No. 2 who the FBI hunted for but never found who helped McVeigh in the bombing - not Nichols. McVeigh was convicted in June on identical charges of conspiracy and murder and sentenced to death for the crime.

Tigar urged the jury to keep in mind that Nichols was presumed innocent. "Guilt by association is not conspiracy. Knowing is not conspiracy," Tigar told the panel of seven women and five men. "Terry Nichols is innocentŠTerry Nichols was building a life, not a bomb."

Tigar raised the specter that the defense could solve the case by describing "how Timothy McVeigh planned this crime, who he planned it with and who helped him commit it." Immediately after the blast, the government circulated a sketch of John Doe No. 2, a stocky, swarthy man witnesses placed with McVeigh in Kansas and at the Murrah building the morning of the blast. After an exhaustive, but fruitless national manhunt, the government later insisted there was no such suspect.

Tigar also vowed to mount a far more vigorous defense of Nichols than was presented by McVeigh's lead attorney Stephen Jones in the trial last spring. Tigar, who unsuccessfully sought to limit the emotional victim testimony that drove the McVeigh trial, said Monday he will cross examine all prosecution witnesses. "Even those who have lost so much," said the lawyer, suggesting that this trial will last well beyond the new year.

Nichols, wearing his trademark blue blazer, khaki pants and sporting a fresh haircut, listened attentively to the more than three hours of opening statements in the packed courtroom. About three dozens survivors of the blast and relatives of victims filled the back rows, but the atmosphere was less emotionally charged than in the early days of the McVeigh trial.

The government contends that Nichols and McVeigh, who met in the Army in the late 1980s, shared a disdain for the federal government. This escalating hatred, Mackey claimed, drove them to avenge the government's 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian religious cult near Waco, Tex. in which more than 80 people were killed. Two years to the day after that assault the Murrah building was blown up.

Mackey alleged that the men planned the bombing in the fall of 1994 using a series of aliases as they stole and purchased explosives, hid them in storage lockers in Kansas and Arizona, and then constructed the bomb at Geary Lake State Park near Nichols' home in Herington.

All in all, Mackey's opening statement presented relatively little new evidence against Nichols that was not offered in the McVeigh trial. However, lawyers on both sides Monday underscored the critical importance of Nichols' nine-and-a-half hours of voluntary interviews with the FBI, conducted two days after the explosion. Nichols had turned himself into Herington police authorities after hearing his name mentioned on the radio as a suspect.