McALESTER, Okla. – Defense attorneys opened their case Monday to keep Oklahoma City (search) bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (search) off death row, displaying childhood photos that show him goofing off with his brothers, cradling his baby niece and feeding a pet deer on his family's farm.
Nichols' oldest brother, Leslie Nichols, younger sister, Suzanne McDonnell, and both of his former wives were among nine defense witnesses who offered emotional testimony during the penalty phase of Nichols' trial.
Lana Padilla, his first wife, said Nichols was very close with their son, Joshua, now 21, before he was arrested for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building (search), which killed 168 people.
Padilla said Nichols has continued to telephone her and their children and send cards and letters from prison.
"Would the loss of his father have a significant effect on Josh?" asked Nichols' lawyer, Brian Hermanson.
"It would destroy him," Padilla said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Nichols' second wife, Marife Torres, said Nichols has also remained close with their children, Nicole and Christian.
Testimony in the penalty phase is scheduled to conclude Tuesday. Jurors will begin deciding whether Nichols is sentenced to life in prison or death on Wednesday.
Nichols' siblings recalled a happy childhood growing up in a tiny wood-frame house in Michigan and described their brother as a gracious, hardworking farm boy.
Nichols, 49, wept quietly at the defense table as his brother described an accident in 1974 in which a fuel tank exploded and caused third-degree burns over 70 percent of Leslie Nichols' body, badly disfiguring his face and head. Leslie Nichols said his brother offered to give him skin grafts from his own body following the accident.
The jury convicted Nichols on 161 state murder charges on May 26. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, but defense attorneys hope to persuade the jury to sentence him to life in prison.
Nichols is already serving a life sentence on federal convictions for the deaths of eight federal agents in the blast. The state charges are for the other victims and one victim's fetus.
In court Monday, defense attorneys projected a photograph of Terry Nichols when he was about 10 years old and his other brother, James Nichols, standing on their heads in the family home.
"He was a monkey," Leslie Nichols said, prompting jurors to smile and nod.
Another photograph showed Nichols riding a unicycle on a country road near his home. The defense also showed pictures of Nichols feeding a pet deer and owl. Others depicted a smiling Nichols holding McDonnell's infant daughter, and at family Christmas parties.
McDonnell said her brother became more religious after being transferred from a federal prison in Colorado to Oklahoma in 2000 to face the state murder charges.
"He definitely talked about God more," she said. "He's grown. We've all grown."
Among other things, defense attorneys will ask jurors to consider that Nichols believes in God and shows "a great chance for redemption" if they spare him the death penalty.
Sixty-five witnesses, including bombing survivors and victims' relatives, testified over three days in the sentencing phase for prosecutors, who wrapped up their case Thursday.