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OKC Case: Who Helped McVeigh?

Terry Nichols' attorney cited problems with prosecutors' scientific evidence Tuesday in closing arguments and told jurors that others helped Timothy McVeigh bomb the Oklahoma City federal building.

Defense attorney Barbara Bergman said the others set up Nichols to take the blame for the deaths of 168 people killed in the April 19, 1995, blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

"This is a case about manipulation, betrayal and overreaching," Bergman said. "People who are still unknown assisted Timothy McVeigh."

Nichols, 49, is serving a federal life sentence for involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officials in the bombing. In this state court trial, he is accused of 161 counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of the other victims plus one victim's fetus.

After the end of defense closing arguments, prosecutors will have an opportunity to present rebuttal before the case goes to the jury, probably on Tuesday afternoon.

If Nichols is convicted, the trial will enter a second phase in which jurors will decide whether he should be sentenced to life in prison or death by lethal injection.

Judge Steven Taylor ruled the death penalty may be sought on all the counts if Nichols is convicted, except one for the death of the fetus.

Defense attorneys had sought to allow jurors to find Nichols guilty of charges less serious than first-degree murder, but Taylor rejected that request.

On Monday, prosecutor Lou Keel said in his closing arguments that suggestions that McVeigh, who was executed in 2001, received substantial help from others does not relieve Nichols of responsibility for his role.

But Bergman reminded jurors of dozens of witnesses who testified they saw McVeigh with others in the weeks before the bombing. Witnesses said the others did not resemble Nichols.

Bergman attacked scientific evidence presented by prosecutors during 29 days of testimony, including the discovery of ammonium nitrate crystals on a piece of plywood that was part of the truck that delivered the bomb.

The bomb was made up of an explosive mixture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil.

Steven Burmeister, an FBI scientist, testified for the prosecution that the crystals were embedded in the plywood under pressure, possibly from an explosion, but former FBI chemist Frederic Whitehurst testified the crystals were only adhering to the surface and that their origin was unknown.

Prosecutors say said Nichols and McVeigh planned the bombing to avenge the government's siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, which ended with the deaths of 81 people on April 19, 1993 — exactly two years before the bombing.

Keel said McVeigh parked the truck that delivered the bomb on the federal building's east side so the blast would be felt in the offices of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which had played a pivotal role at the Waco siege.

Questions about the possible involvement of other accomplices in the 1995 bombing have swirled since McVeigh was put to death after a month's delay because of the belated discovery of some 4,000 pages of documents that had not been turned over to McVeigh's defense during his trial.

In some of the recent revelations:

  • Senior FBI agents unsuccessfully sought permission in 2001 to interview McVeigh to resolve lingering questions about the case before the convicted Oklahoma City bomber was put to death. The plan was scrapped when the government couldn't resolve who would attend the interview or how it would be conducted.
  • FBI agents in another case developed evidence suggesting a gang of white supremacist bank robbers might have become involved in McVeigh's conspiracy, but the agents failed to forward some of the information to their colleagues in the Oklahoma case. That prompted the FBI in March to reopen portions of the case to determine whether other conspirators were involved.
  • An Oklahoma newspaper, the Idabel McCurtain Daily Gazette, and a college criminology professor, Mark Hamm, have studied McVeigh's movements extensively and developed timelines showing a white supremacist bank robbery gang was in the same vicinity as McVeigh several times during gaps in the government's official version of events.
  • Other documents indicate the FBI and prosecutors ordered the destruction in 1999 of evidence from a bank robbery they once suspected linked McVeigh to the white supremacists.
  • Less than two weeks before McVeigh was executed, the Justice Department received a letter suggesting a key prosecution witness had given false testimony. Prosecutors didn't disclose the allegations to McVeigh's lawyers and later sought to recover all copies of the letter in exchange for a lawsuit settlement.
  • Last summer, the FBI internal affairs office investigated their crime lab's chief of scientific analysis about his conduct in the bombing case, according to people familiar with the investigation.