Justice Is Being Served

The inability of a Denver jury to come to a decision on sentencing convicted bombing conspirator Terry Nichols has extended the tensions and emotions surrounding this case - particularly for the families whose loved ones perished in the April 1995 blast in Oklahoma City.

In that sense the jury's impasse was regrettable. But criticism of those 12 people is misplaced. As the judge and even one of the prosecutors said, they served well in a trial marked by evidence often highly suggestive of guilt, but just as often inconclusive.

The comments by jury forewoman Nikki Deutchman were to the point. The jury's deliberations found some members convinced of Mr. Nichols's guilt, others sure his involvement was relatively minor. They could agree on a verdict that in essence split the difference: guilty of conspiracy to plan the act, not guilty of murder. They could not find that middle ground on sentencing, faced with the alternatives of death or life without parole.

The sentence thus falls to the judge, who cannot under federal guidelines impose the death penalty. He does, however, have ample authority to sentence Nichols to lengthy incarceration, possibly life.

We've long opposed the death sentence on moral, religious, and legal grounds. A crime as heinous as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City creates a wave of support for that harshest of punishments. This tide of anger is pushing Oklahoma officials to seek their own state trials of Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, even though the latter is already condemned to death. That would be a mistake, further postponing the time when relatives and friends of victims can see an end to the frustration and reliving of tragedy that accompanies the criminal prosecution of this case.

At the same time, unresolved elements in the case demand follow-up. The FBI must vigorously track any lead that might locate others who may have collaborated with McVeigh.

Americans observing these processes of justice should appreciate that their system works even in the most intense of circumstances. The legal system can't, however, comfort the bereaved. Prayer can do that, and all of us have our part to play.

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