McALESTER, Okla. -- Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols was again spared the death penalty yesterday when jurors who convicted him of 161 murder counts deadlocked over his sentence, denying state prosecutors the execution that was the main reason for bringing the case.
Just as a federal jury deadlocked six years earlier, state jurors could not agree on Nichols's punishment for helping Timothy McVeigh blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.
State jurors announced they could not reach a verdict after deliberating for about 19 hours over three days. Nichols will be sentenced by Judge Steven Taylor, who is required by law to give him life in prison.
Taylor asked jury foreman Peter Mills if more deliberations could bring about a decision. Mills said that would not help.
"Three days you have worked on this," Taylor told the jury. "And sometimes this is how cases end. The law anticipates that juries may not reach unanimous conclusions."
Taylor said Nichols had a fair trial.
"No one should feel that they have let anybody down," Taylor said. "This case was not about winning or losing. This case is about justice."
The deadlock was a blow to state prosecutors and victims' family members who said death was the appropriate punishment for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
"I think he should die, but that's not my decision," said Beverly Rankin, who was injured in the bombing. "Hopefully, he'll never step foot out free in his lifetime."
State prosecutors brought the case, which has cost $3.9 million in defense attorneys' fees alone, after Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without parole following federal convictions for the deaths of eight federal agents in the bombing, which killed 168 people.
The state convictions were for the 160 other victims of the bombing, and one fetus whose mother died in the blast.
Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane, who made the decision to pursue the state case against Nichols, denied that the prosecution was conducted solely for the purpose of getting a death penalty verdict. He said it was important that Nichols be convicted of killing all the bombing victims, and that the state counts serve as an insurance policy if the federal counts are overturned.
"This case has always been about 161 men, women, and children and an unborn baby having the same rights to their day in court as eight federal law enforcement officers," he said. "They've now had their day in court."
Defense attorney Brian Hermanson said now was the time to think of those harmed by the bombing.
"At this time we should remember the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, their losses." Hermanson said. He said Nichols prayed that "all people can recover from the hate and fear" created by the bombing.
The jury, which convicted Nichols on May 26, began deliberating in the trial's sentencing phase Wednesday, after a week of emotional testimony.
Taylor set the sentencing for Aug. 9.
The April 19, 1995, bombing killed 168 people and wounded 500. McVeigh, Nichols's former Army buddy and the mastermind of the bombing, was convicted of federal charges and executed in 2001 for what was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil at the time.
Prosecutors said Nichols helped build the two-ton bomb -- made from farm fertilizer and fuel oil -- that was packed into a Ryder truck and detonated outside the federal building.
During closing arguments in the sentencing phase, prosecutor Suzanne Lister called the bombing "one of the darkest, ugliest days in American history."
"Think about the number of dreams, the number of plans, and the number of loved ones that Terry Nichols destroyed on April 19, 1995," Lister said. "Think of them as individual human beings. One-hundred-sixty-one. Nineteen children. Some of their bodies are torn beyond recognition. Some are decapitated."
Defense attorneys argued Nichols found God in the past four years and has corresponded with prayer partners and made cards for his children.
Just before the start of deliberations, defense attorney Creekmore Wallace stood behind Nichols, put his hands on his shoulders and asked jurors to spare his life.
"This case is about one person, this man, Terry Lynn Nichols, and whether you will take his life," Wallace said.