The government opened its case against Terry Nichols on Monday by bluntly conceding that the defendant was hundreds of miles away on the day a massive bomb destroyed a downtown federal building in Oklahoma City, 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-pound 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 home . . . in Herington, Kan., with his wife and daughter . . . at a very safe distance. . . . 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, whom 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 innocent. . . . Terry 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."
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 the trial will last 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.
Nichols' wife was not in the courtroom because she is expected to be called as a defense witness, said her attorney Maureen Cain. However, Nichols' mother, Joyce Wilt, and his sister, Susie McDonald, sat in the front row. McDonald, who visited with her brother on Saturday, said he was in good spirits.
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, Texas, 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 fall 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.
The first government witness Monday indicated that the Nichols prosecution would be structured differently from the McVeigh case. Unlike the McVeigh trial which opened dramatically with the only known audiotape of the explosion and powerful survivor testimony, the government began its case with a former security guard at an Oklahoma City apartment building who testified about the building's security system. The Regency Tower's surveillance camera captured footage of Nichols' pickup truck in Oklahoma City three days before the blast.
The security guard was followed by one of the apartment building's maintenance employees, who walked out of the building with his wife seconds before the explosion and watched in horror as the Ryder truck's axle whirled through the air and slammed into his red Ford Festiva. The man, his wife and their nephew _ sitting in the rear seat of the car _ narrowly escaped death. Jurors did eventually hear the chilling 15-second recording of the blast.