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The judge in the Oklahoma City bombing case said Wednesday that he was leaning toward imposing a sentence of life in prison on Terry L. Nichols for his role in the attack unless he could be convinced otherwise.

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch said that "if Mr. Nichols comes forward with answers (about the bombing), it would be something the court can consider."

Matsch's statement was the first time that he had tipped his hand on what sentence he might impose at a later date.

"It is my preliminary view that a life sentence is the appropriate sentence" in view of the severity of the crime, he said. But Matsch said Nichols' attorneys will have the opportunity to try to convince him that a lesser sentence would be appropriate.

Nichols, who turns 43 next week, was convicted in December of helping to plan the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people and injured 500.

The prosecution is seeking a life term; the defense thinks that the sentence should be less than five years.

Earlier in the day, Matsch turned down Nichols' request for a new trial.

Shortly after the sentencing hearing began, Nichols attorney Michael E. Tigar asked for a new trial.

He argued that the government withheld 12,000 pages of evidence from the defense that included FBI agents' interviews with people who claimed to have seen a second person with convicted bomber Timothy J. McVeigh on the day of the bombing.

That second person was known as "John Doe No. 2" and has not been found. Officials argued that he never existed and that McVeigh, formerly of Pendleton, N.Y., carried out the bombing with Nichols' help. McVeigh has been sentenced to death.

But Matsch denied the request for a new trial and a request by Tigar that the defense be given the materials before the sentence is imposed, possibly next month.

Matsch, however, said he would make the materials available after he passes sentence so that Tigar could use them in an appeal.

Nichols was convicted of conspiracy and manslaughter in the deaths of eight federal agents in the bombing.

The job of settling on a punishment fell to Matsch after jurors failed to agree on what Nichols' punishment should be.

Nichols said Monday in a carefully worded letter to the judge that he would not have taken part in a terrorist attack. "My family means the world to me, and I would not do a horrible thing such as a terrorist bombing and bring shame on not just my family but the family name also," he wrote.

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