After Bombing Trials, Unanswered Questions
Nichols jury considers death penalty sentence on Monday.
DENVER — Nearly three years after the tragic bombing in Oklahoma City that shattered Americans' sense of security, the convictions of co-conspirators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bring a degree of closure to one of the most emotional criminal episodes in US history.
But behind the tragedy, massive investigation, and two high-profile trials, lies an enduring question: why?
Why did the men - two Army buddies with an apparent distrust, even hatred, of the federal government - set out on a path of senseless destruction that would claim the lives of 168 men, women, and children, and forever change the tomorrows of thousands more?
And, equally mysterious, was anyone else involved?
As the Nichols case heads to the jury for sentencing, questions and conspiracy theories linger. In one sense, that is perhaps inevitable. Analysts say that in the wake of any event of this magnitude, there's a feeling of "loose ends," particularly in a country that still ruminates over the Kennedy assassination and even the Lindbergh kidnapping.
"Why would two men like McVeigh and Nichols do this? That is something we all would like to have the answer to - and probably never will," says Mimi Wesson, a University of Colorado law professor and former US attorney.
Certainly the Nichols trial left some mysteries unresolved. That was perhaps reflected in the mixed verdict: A federal jury this week convicted Nichols on a charge of conspiracy and of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of eight federal agents in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building. But it acquitted him of first-degree murder - in other words, of actually committing the atrocity.
Analysts say that means it's unlikely the jury will give him the death penalty as it takes up the sentencing phase of the trial on Monday. Last summer, a jury convicted Mr. McVeigh on 11 counts of conspiracy and murder in the blast. He was sentenced to death.
In presenting their case, government prosecutors argued in both trials that McVeigh and Nichols harbored a strong antipathy toward the federal government and conspired to bomb the Murrah building in retaliation for a federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Although investigators first believed the militia movement was involved in the plot, no clear links were identified. Nor were the two former Army recruits identified as members of any militia.
"I do think the Oklahoma City cases are destined to go into the unsolved mystery file," says Ms. Wesson. "No matter what the outcome, people will continue to interest themselves in theories about the bombing. I think that where our culture is now: We are attracted to unanswered questions."
John Doe No. 2
For many, a prominent mystery centers on others who may have participated in the bombing - particularly at the time the bomb was built and detonated. The Nichols defense tried to build on the theory that one individual in particular - a swarthy, muscular man reportedly spotted with McVeigh frequently - was in fact McVeigh's right-hand man in the deadly crime.
The mysterious man, whom federal investigators dubbed John Doe No. 2 in the early stages of the investigation, was never found. Defense lawyers for Nichols attributed that to sloppy work on the part of the FBI and argued it indicated fundamental weaknesses in the prosecution's case. Prosecutors countered that the existence of another conspirator did not reduce the culpability of those on trial.
But the fact that jurors in the second bombing trial were not willing to convict Nichols on all 11 counts of conspiracy and murder sought by the government suggests they did find gaps in the prosecution's case. At the very least, jurors questioned prosecutors' contention that Nichols built the bomb "with his own hands," and was side-by-side with McVeigh "every step of the way."
Still, legal experts say it is a mistake for the public to expect the justice system to supply all the answers about the commission of a crime. The courts, after all, are more a test of the evidence against a suspect than a guided tour of the truth.
"I think people expect that the justice system will sift through all the confusion, and come to the kernel of truth," says Andrew Cohen, a Denver trial attorney who has followed both bombing trials closely. "But it's an unrealistic expectation. The system is designed to protect the rights of individuals in addition to presenting the facts. There are some things that only [the defendants] know."
Wesson agrees. "The courtroom has become our collective theater now - we've come to expect from it what the ancient Greeks expected of drama. But the courts are not set up to satisfy our need to tell a story. We're looking to the courtroom for something it was never developed to provide," she says.
And while examination of the significance of radical antigovernment views in the bombing may have its place, it isn't clear whether McVeigh or Nichols in fact represent this movement, says Jeffrey Hartje, a militia expert and law professor at the University of Denver. "Even among the zealously right-wing, any sane person recognizes that violence of this type is no answer," he says.
As the federal bombing trial winds down, a grand jury in Oklahoma City continues to investigate evidence that others may have been involved in the bombing. At the same time, Oklahoma City District Attorney Bob Macy is promising to pursue state charges against McVeigh and Nichols for the 160 blast victims not included in the federal case.
In the end, analysts say, Americans can derive some gratification from the way the two cases were handled. "These have been two of the most dignified trials in US history," says Mr. Cohen. "They've been fair and reasonable. The judge did a wonderful job here, and I think people now have a much better sense of the justice system than they did two years ago."
For survivors of the blast, such contentment is harder to come by. Rudy Guzman, whose brother was killed in the bombing, sat in the Denver courtroom nearly every day during the Nichols and McVeigh trials. Like many survivors, Mr. Guzman is disappointed that Nichols wasn't convicted on first-degree murder charges.
"I'm not expecting a sense of closure, but of justice. I want justice," he says.
But others, including Aren Almon Kok, whose daughter died after being rescued by a firefighter, accept the verdicts. "I'm very happy with the outcome," she says. "When the trials are over, it will be a time for healing."