McALESTER, Okla. – Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (search) may have been spared the death penalty for a second time because a jailhouse conversion to Christianity gained him sympathy from the jury, lawyers in the case said Saturday.
The state prosecution, staged in an attempt to secure the death penalty at a cost expected to soar to $10 million, ended with the same sentence Nichols received in federal court six years ago: life.
Juror Daniel Cochran said as many as eight of the 12 jurors agreed to impose a death sentence, but declined to disclose further details of their deliberations.
"We all agreed that what went on in the jury room would stay in the jury room," he said.
But lawyers for both the prosecution and defense agreed jurors were influenced by Nichols' religious conversion. Nichols was also portrayed as susceptible to manipulation by Timothy McVeigh (search), the bombing's mastermind.
During the sentencing portion of his trial, defense witnesses testified that Nichols had worn out four Bibles through prayer and research, and that he wrote an 83-page letter to a prayer partner in Michigan while trying to make a point about Christian faith.
"Terry Nichols' belief in God is so firm that he believes if the rapture occurred today he is going to heaven," defense attorney Creekmore Wallace told jurors.
After convicting him of 161 counts of murder in just 5 hours, the jury wrestled with his punishment for 191/2 hours before concluding they could not agree on a penalty.
The deadlock means that Nichols will automatically be sentenced to life in prison for the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
He received the same sentence on federal convictions for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers in 1998. That jury deadlocked after 131/2 hours of deliberation.
The state charges are for the other 160 victims and one victims' fetus.
District Attorney Wes Lane (search), who pursued murder charges filed by his predecessor, Bob Macy, said the prosecution was about seeking justice for the other victims, not securing the death penalty.
"Justice was getting their day in court," he said.
But in announcing the state charges, Macy had said he was not satisfied with the outcome of the federal trial.
"Clearly the reason they brought this action in Oklahoma was to kill Terry," defense attorney Brian Hermanson said. "They spend a huge amount of money. They caused a huge amount of heartache for a lot of people. And basically we reached the same result as the federal case."
Lane said he believes Nichols was spared because of "sympathy issues" among some jurors, including for his religious conversion — one that prosecutors said conveniently began about the time state murder charges were filed against him.
"I don't see Terry Nichols as being repentant necessarily," Lane said. "I know that Mr. Nichols was not willing to accept responsibility."
Wallace said Nichols' religious conversion is genuine, and that jurors may also have believed that Nichols was used by McVeigh, who was executed on federal murder charges on June 11, 2001.
"Every person in his life who has had any kind of agenda has been able to manipulate the man," Wallace said. He said Nichols has no social skills and may suffer from a mild form of autism.
Polls conducted before the start of Nichols' trial showed that most Oklahomans opposed bringing Nichols to trial again because he was already serving life in prison.
A poll conducted by the Tulsa World in January found 70 percent of Oklahomans opposed the expense of a state trial. Only 25 percent were in favor, according to the Oklahoma Poll.
Nichols' defense team alone has been paid almost $4 million. That figure that does not include the cost of prosecution or of transporting and housing prosecution witnesses during Nichols' trial.
Bud Welch, a death-penalty opponent whose daughter, July Marie Welch, died in the bombing, said even some families who were angry that Nichols didn't get a death sentence in his federal trial opposed the state charges.
"It just made sense the jury would not go for the death penalty," said Welch, who read a victim impact statement during the penalty phase. "I think some of the jurors felt that it's been nine years, he's been in prison."
Hermanson said Nichols' jury had renewed his faith in Oklahoma's criminal justice system.
"I am so proud of those jurors that voted their heart and listened to the evidence in holding out for life," Hermanson said.
"There was not a valid reason for killing him other than the seeking of vengeance. There's no place for vengeance in the courtroom."