Oklahoma City: Is another trial worth its grief?

With a court date of March 1 set for Terry Nichols, survivors wrestle with crime, punishment, and memories.

Jim Denny makes an unlikely advocate for Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols. His two children still suffer from injuries received when the explosion ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

For his role in the terrorist attack, Mr. Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without parole. But on March 1, he will face a new trial on state murder charges - and nearly nine years after the bombing, many Oklahomans say enough is enough.

"The federal government did a great job trying both McVeigh and Nichols," says Mr. Denny from his home in Oklahoma City. "But this state trial is the biggest waste of money and waste of time. There comes a time when we have to let go."

Denny is not alone. In a recent poll sponsored by the Tulsa World, 70 percent of those surveyed opposed a state trial, which has already cost taxpayers $4 million. The resistance isn't just about money, say mental-health experts; it's about progress, and a sign that Oklahoma is healing.

Indeed, since April 19, 1995, many teenagers who lost parents in the blast have graduated from college or begun careers; many parents who lost children have retired or started new families. Time has moved on, moving lives along with it.

That's not to say that everyone has recovered, that tragedy has been forgotten, or that those responsible have been forgiven. It's simply that many don't want to let the terrorists control their lives any longer.

"A survivor recently told me, 'I've given them too much of my life and time already and I don't want to give them any more,' " says John Call, a forensic psychologist and president of Crisis Management Consultants in Oklahoma City. "But there is no lessening of the anger, no forgiveness. We're not being nice; we're just being practical."

Still, nobody has been held responsible for most of the lives taken in the blast - a sore spot for some. Mr. McVeigh was convicted of killing the eight federal law officers in the building and was executed in 2001. Nichols was found guilty of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter of those same officers, and was sentenced to life.

The other 160 people, including 19 children at a day-care center inside the building, remain nameless in the courts' eyes.

"Two were my grandchildren," says Jannie Coverdale, their primary caregiver. "Those children that died in there were our future. They could have been doctors, lawyers, scientists. But we don't know; they didn't live. Someone should be accountable for their deaths."

Ms. Coverdale is one of those who's been very vocal about having Nichols tried by the state, petitioning the governor and meeting with the district attorney. She wants him to be sentenced to death.

"The majority of people on death row are there for killing one or two people," she says. "So if Terry Nichols can kill 160 people and get life, then we might as well abolish the death penalty in this country."

Indeed, for some, the point is to punish Nichols to the fullest extent of the law; in this case, with the death penalty, which the state is seeking. For others, "it's just as much punishment for Nichols to spend the rest of his life in jail rotting," says Dr. Call.

Denny believes revenge should not be the motive for a trial, and calls the process a black mark on the justice system. "When a defendant enters the courtroom, there should be a presumption of innocence," he says. "But Nichols has already been convicted of eight counts of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison, so he's obliviously guilty of the other 160 deaths. How can a jury be impartial?"

The trial, which could take six months to a year, has been moved to McAlester. A judge ruled last summer that Nichols could not get a fair trial in Oklahoma City, blocks from the bombing site and the 168 bronze chairs commemorating the dead.

As it did for the past two trials, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health has set up hot lines and websites for those upset by another trial and the grief it conjures. Counselors are waiting - but so far they haven't received any calls. "There just aren't as many concerns surrounding this particular trial," says Jeff Dismukes of the Department of Mental Health.

The United Way of Central Oklahoma is getting the same limited response. It wrote to 1,800 survivors and relatives, alerting them to a fund that could help them travel to the trial. The $100,000 in aid is left over from money raised to send victims to Denver for the federal trials, when more than 800 people were interested in assistance.

But this time around, only 118 are interested - and all will be able to attend because the response was so limited.

"I think it's a reflection of a changing feeling about the bombing," says Bob Spinks, president of the United Way of Central Oklahoma. "We will never be at all like we were before the bombing, but our focus is beginning to shift. The attack is no longer ever-present in our thoughts."

That's why the state trial should be stopped, says Ruth Schwab, who used to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was on the eighth floor of the building when the blast occurred and she lost an eye from flying debris. She's been subpoenaed to testify in the upcoming trial. "Every time there is another trial, you live it again," she says from her home in Oklahoma City. "I mean, it's hard enough to live with the consequences, without constantly pulling the Band-Aid off and exposing the hurt."

She also thinks the trial is a waste of money, and doesn't feel like a death sentence would make a difference in her life. In fact, she says, she didn't get any satisfaction out of McVeigh's execution.

"It didn't lesson my pain or provide any closure." she says. "As for Nichols, he already no longer has his life. How many times can you put a man to death?"

What has brought relief, says Ms. Schwab, is living - focusing on her husband and five children, immersing herself in her church, going about the business of her life. "I can't sit around and be mad all the time because I was blown up in a building," she says. "That way, they win."

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