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May 2012
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Trial Diaries | Part One of a Two-Part Story. Representing Terry Nichols: The Story of One Lawyer’s First Jury Trial

by N. Reid Neureiter

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Search and Rescue workers gather at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing. FEMA News Photo
Search and Rescue workers gather at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing.
FEMA News Photo

he crime committed on April 19, 1995, was, at that time, so shocking it was almost unimaginable: 168 Americans dead, including 19 children under the age of 6. Three hundred twenty-four buildings within a 16-block radius were destroyed or damaged. Damage totaled $650 million. All as a result of a massive bomb packed inside a rented moving truck. In Oklahoma of all places—the heartland. 

Within days, both President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announced the United States would seek to execute those responsible. The explosion spawned what was , up to that time, the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history. Two suspects, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were seized. After two years of pretrial maneuvers, they were tried in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, with the Honorable Richard Matsch presiding.

When the bombing occurred, I was a second-year lawyer. The Oklahoma City bombing case would be my first jury trial.

At the time of the bombing, I was an associate at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. The event had little direct impact on me. Of course, as new parents ourselves, my wife and I were struck by the image of a tiny baby’s body being carried by a firefighter from the rubble of the America’s Kids daycare center, which had been located in the lower floor of the destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I was bothered that, in the bombing’s aftermath, the stretch Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was permanently closed to vehicular traffic. We seemed to be losing a degree of openness and freedom that I had always appreciated about our nation’s Capitol. Yet, for the most part, the bombing did not have a direct impact on our daily lives.

However, my interest was piqued when Michael Tigar, one of my law professors from my time at the University of Texas, accepted an appointment as lead defense counsel for Nichols. In law school, I had been privileged to work as Tigar’s assistant in the defense of John Demjanjuk, the man wrongly accused of being the mass-murdering prison guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka concentration camp. Tigar was a celebrated opponent of the death penalty and a renowned advocate in controversial cases. A protégé of the famed Edward Bennett Williams, Tigar was only 27 years old when he argued the first of his seven U.S. Supreme Court cases. The Washington Post called Tigar both "an egocentric, self-righteous show horse" and a "brilliant, generous, and principled lawyer who must be convinced he is on the moral high ground before he takes a case." In a vote of California lawyers for "Lawyer of the Century," Tigar finished third behind Clarence Darrow and Thurgood Marshall.

Ron Woods, of Houston, was appointed as Tigar’s co-counsel. Woods is a former FBI special agent, former Texas state prosecutor, and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. He generally is regarded as one of the best trial lawyers in Texas. Nichols had the legal defense dream team of "Tigar/Woods."

Timothy McVeigh about to be led out of a Perry, Oklahoma courthouse two days after the Oklahoma City bombing. Olaf Growald
Timothy McVeigh about to be led out of a Perry, Oklahoma courthouse two days after the Oklahoma City bombing.
Olaf Growald

In early 1996, a phone call got my full attention: It was Professor Tigar asking if I wanted to quit my job and move my young family to Denver to be a lawyer for Nichols.

Tigar and Woods (with classes to teach and a law practice to run in Texas) would need someone on the ground in Denver the year before the trial to set up an office, supervise paralegals and investigators, coordinate fact and expert discovery, and draft and respond to numerous pretrial motions. Joining the team was Adam Thurschwell, a civil rights lawyer, brief writer, and death penalty expert.

I asked one question, "Can I get witnesses at the trial?" Tigar’s affirmative answer sealed the deal.

I was paid $75 an hour for my time. For a young lawyer who worked at annual pace of more than 2,000 hours a year, it was substantially more than pro bono representation. Judge Matsch was responsible for approving all legal and investigative expenditures. To my recollection, no reasonable request was ever denied. Our team began with four lawyers (later growing to five), five investigators, and five paralegals. By the end of our representation, Nichols’ defense cost an estimated $5 million. Judge Matsch’s approval of our funding requests for an investigatory team, for travel to interview witnesses, and for retained experts in a variety of different fields went a long way toward leveling a legal playing field that was necessarily tilted in favor of the prosecution. Published reports indicate that the federal government ultimately spent $82.5 million investigating and prosecuting the cases against both McVeigh and Nichols. McVeigh’s defense reportedly cost taxpayers $15 million. The nine prosecutors were hand-picked by Reno from U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country.

Nichols’ defense from the very beginning centered around one undeniable fact: he was not McVeigh.

Defense attorneys Ron Woods and Michael Tigar sit between Terry Nichols in court. Courtesy of the estate of Walt Stewart
Defense attorneys Ron Woods and Michael Tigar sit between Terry Nichols in court. Courtesy of the estate of Walt Stewart

When McVeigh was arrested 80 minutes after the bombing, some 80 miles north of Oklahoma City, he was wearing a T-shirt printed with the words, "The tree of liberty shall be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Soon after McVeigh was linked to the bombing, the entire country saw the image of the close-cropped former soldier in an orange jumpsuit being led out of jail in Noble County, Okla., jail surrounded by FBI agents. It was the perp walk to beat all perp walks; McVeigh looked the part of an unrepentant baby killer. His "thousand-yard stare" was unforgettable.

The Nichols defense team’s preference was to have our client remain off-stage, unknown, and unremarked on until the empanelment of his jury. For the most part, the strategy worked. When I first came to Denver and struck up a discussion with a cab driver about what I was doing in Colorado, he asked who I was representing, "McVeigh or the other guy?" Exactly—"The other guy." Unknown and unremembered.

Ultimately, the contrast between McVeigh and Nichols evolved into an important defense theme at trial: "Terry Nichols was building a life, not a bomb." D

 

N. Reid Neureiter is a senior counsel with Husch Blackwell, focusing his practice on complex commercial litigation and trials. Before writing this article, Neureiter received permission from Terry Nichols to discuss Neureiter’s role in the case.


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