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NICHOLS PLAYED SECOND FIDDLE, BUT STILL DESERVES SEVERE PUNISHMENT

The testimony was not nearly as gripping, and neither was the trial itself. But that doesn't mean the conviction of Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols was much less important than that of Timothy McVeigh.

What the conviction of Nichols for conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter does mean is that a cautious jury, trying to distinguish between the different roles of the two men in the bombing, reached a cautious verdict.

Indeed, the verdict was perhaps too cautious for the weight of the evidence produced against Nichols.

It is nearly impossible for plots of this magnitude to be carried out alone. Others must help along the way -- as Nichols obviously did. Without his assistance, there's a good possibility that 168 men, women and children would still be alive today.

But those kids and adults are dead, in part because Nichols helped McVeigh buy bomb materials and hide them until a Ryder truck was packed with explosives. He then helped McVeigh with the logistics needed to put the truck-bomb in place to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and escape in April 1995.

That makes Nichols responsible for those deaths, too, as the jury decided with its manslaughter verdict. But the same verdict, along with his acquittal on other charges, indicates that this jury considered much of the circumstantial evidence less compelling than evidence produced in the McVeigh trial. So the jury found Nichols an accomplice, but one less responsible than McVeigh was in this senseless plot.

In a nutshell, Nichols helped rob a gun dealer to raise money for the bombing. He helped McVeigh assemble the bomb. He helped him stow a getaway car in Oklahoma City.

Since no one actually saw Nichols do any of of these things, however, jurors no doubt grappled with the weight of finding him guilty on all of the charges and of connecting him to the knowing intent of committing murder.

Still, the evidence was piled high by prosecutors. There was the drill bit found in Nichols' home with markings identical to one used to break a padlock on the quarry where explosives used in the bombing were stolen.

Then there was the receipt for a ton of ammonium nitrate used to make the bomb. The receipt was wrapped around gold coins and well-hidden at the back of a kitchen drawer in Nichols' home. The receipt held by Nichols had Timothy McVeigh's fingerprints on it, even though Nichols' wife testified that McVeigh had never been in their home.

Nichols and McVeigh rented storage sheds under false names, and Nichols' wife never knew about the storage units, even though he claimed he only wanted them to store household items. Nor did she ever see the 40 bags of ammonium nitrate that went into the bomb -- far more than the amount Nichols said he bought to sell at gun shows.

There was further evidence that Nichols was in contact with McVeigh in the days leading up to the bombing, even though he said he hadn't been, and that he lied to his wife about going to Omaha when he'd actually gone to Oklahoma City.

The only people with serious doubts about Nichols' guilt of some involvement in this nefarious plot may be those who also perversely believe that the Oklahoma City bombing was a justified response to government action in the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas.

Anger over that tragedy is supposedly what spurred Nichols and McVeigh to retaliate against innocent men, women and children with deadly results still felt by their survivors and relatives.

The fact that Nichols was not at the site when the building blew up does not absolve him of being a key player in the crime. Nor does the possibility that there may have been other conspirators -- such as the mysterious John Doe No. 2 -- mean that Nichols should not be punished for his role. Even if there were others, Nichols still was one of them -- and a key one, at that.

Now the same jury that sought to distinguish between the roles of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols must return to consider the sentence to be imposed. With this verdict, both Nichols and McVeigh will pay, as they should, for a demented act that murdered innocent people and violated our free society. Although Nichols' participation was on a lesser scale than that of McVeigh, he should be severely punished not only for his own considerable part in the plot but as a deterrent to others as well.

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