Religion may have saved him

Associated Press/June 13, 2004

McAlester, Okla. -- Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols may have been spared the death penalty for a second time because a jailhouse conversion to Christianity gained him sympathy from the jury, lawyers in the case said yesterday.

The state prosecution spent an estimated $10 million in an attempt to secure the death penalty. Instead, it ended with the same sentence Nichols received in federal court six years ago: life.

Juror Daniel Cochran said as many as eight of the 12 jurors agreed to impose a death sentence, but declined to disclose further details of the deliberations.

"We all agreed that what went on in the jury room would stay in the jury room," he said.

But lawyers for both the prosecution and defense agreed jurors were influenced by Nichols' religious conversion. Nichols was also portrayed as susceptible to manipulation by Timothy McVeigh, the bombing's mastermind, who was executed in 2001.

During the sentencing portion of his trial, defense witnesses testified that Nichols had worn out four Bibles through prayer and research, and that he wrote an 83-page letter to a prayer partner in Michigan while trying to make a point about Christian faith.

"Terry Nichols' belief in God is so firm that he believes if the rapture occurred today, he is going to heaven," defense attorney Creekmore Wallace told jurors.

After convicting him of 161 counts of murder in just five hours, the jury wrestled with his punishment for 19 1/2 hours before concluding that they could not agree on a penalty.

The deadlock means that Nichols will automatically be sentenced to life in prison for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

He received the same sentence on federal convictions for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers in 1998. That jury deadlocked after 13 1/2 hours of deliberation.

The state charges are for the other 160 victims and one victim's fetus.

District Attorney Wes Lane, who pursued murder charges filed by his predecessor, Bob Macy, said the prosecution was about seeking justice for the other victims, not securing the death penalty.

"Justice was getting their day in court," he said.

But in announcing the state charges, Macy had said he was not satisfied with the outcome of the federal trial.

"Clearly the reason they brought this action in Oklahoma was to kill Terry," defense attorney Brian Hermanson said. "They spend a huge amount of money. They caused a huge amount of heartache for a lot of people. And basically we reached the same result as the federal case."

Lane said he believes Nichols was spared because of "sympathy issues" among some jurors, including for his religious conversion, which one prosecutor said conveniently began about the time state murder charges were filed against him.

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