Published June 13, 2004
McALESTER, Okla. – An Oklahoma jury's inability to decide whether to send bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (search) to death row may reflect wider misgivings about the death penalty, his defense attorneys say.
Oklahoma led the nation in executions three years ago and has one of the highest death row populations in the nation. But the jury that convicted Nichols on 161 counts of first-degree murder for the bombing deadlocked on whether to sentence him to death.
"It's overcoming the idea of Oklahoma justice," said Nichols' defense attorney Creekmore Wallace, a veteran of 26 death penalty cases in the state.
It took Nichols' 12-member state jury just five hours to find him guilty of murder May 26, but jurors deliberated over his punishment for 19 1/2 hours over three days before concluding on Friday they could not agree on a penalty.
The deadlock means Nichols will automatically be sentenced to life in prison for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building (search), which killed 168 people. Bombing mastermind Timothy McVeigh (search) was convicted of the attack in federal court and was executed in 2001.
Jurors who favored the death penalty said those who opposed it cited Nichols' jailhouse conversion to Christianity and believed he might be able to help other prisoners and his three children.
"That was their opinion, and everyone respected their opinion," said a juror who asked not to be identified.
Nichols, 49, had already been sentenced to life in prison without parole for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers in 1998, after a federal jury also deadlocked over whether Nichols should be put to death.
The following year, then-Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy filed state murder charges against Nichols, seeking capital punishment for the death of the other victims, including the fetus of a pregnant woman who was killed.
Macy, who sent 54 people to death row, was booted off Nichols' case after a judge ruled Macy's public comments about seeking the death penalty violated a gag order and Oklahoma's rules of professional conduct.
Among other comments, Macy gave an interview to CBS in April 2000 in which he said: "I've sent several people to death row for killing one person. I certainly feel that death would be the appropriate punishment for killing 19 babies."
The victims of the bombing included 19 children.
Oklahoma executed 18 death row inmates in 2001, more than any other state. Fourteen were executed by lethal injection last year and five have been executed so far this year, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Almost 100 death row inmates are awaiting execution.
Larry Pozner, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (search), said the Oklahoma jury's decision "is part of the tapestry of the death of the death penalty."
"The death penalty isn't going to die because public support wanes," said Pozner, of Denver. "It is going to be extinguished because it is largely an unnecessary, futile and cost-ineffective solution."
Some states have become more wary of using the death penalty — most notably Illinois, where former Gov. George Ryan halted all state executions in 2000, then commuted the sentences of all 167 death row inmates before leaving office last year. He declared the 2000 moratorium after 13 men were released from Illinois death row because of faulty convictions.
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded people is unconstitutionally cruel. In 2002 it found that only juries, not judges, can call for capital punishment.