After a federal trial in 1997, Nichols was convicted of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter for killing federal law enforcement personnel. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole because the jury deadlocked on the death penalty. He was also tried in Oklahoma on state charges of murder in connection with the bombing. He was convicted in 2004 of 161 counts of first degree murder, including one count of fetal homicide; first-degree arson; and conspiracy. As in the federal trial, the state jury deadlocked on imposing the death penalty. He was sentenced to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, setting a Guinness World Record and is incarcerated at ADX Florence, a super maximum security prison near Florence, Colorado. He shares a cell block that is commonly referred to as "Bombers Row" with Ramzi Yousef and Ted Kaczynski.
Nichols was born in Lapeer, Michigan. He was raised on a farm, the third of four children of Joyce and Robert Nichols. Growing up, he helped his parents on the farm, learning to operate and maintain the equipment. According to the Denver Post, he also cared for injured birds and animals.
Nichols attended Lapeer High School where he took elective classes in crafts and business law. Throughout school, friends characterized him as shy. While in high school he played junior varsity football, wrestled, and was a member of the ski club. His brother James has stated that Terry was good at artwork and book smart. Terry graduated from high school in 1973 with a 3.6 grade point average, with ambitions of becoming a physician.
He enrolled at Central Michigan University, but had difficulty adjusting to college life, and dropped out after one term. In 1974, after his brother Leslie was badly burned in a fuel tank explosion on the farm, he offered to give him skin for grafts. He tried farming with his brother James for a while, but they did not get along; he felt his brother was too bossy. Later he moved to Colorado and obtained a license to sell real estate in 1976. Soon after he closed on his first big sale, his mother told him she needed his help on the farm, so he returned to Michigan.
In 1980, Nichols met real estate agent Lana Walsh, a twice-divorced mother of two who was five years his senior. They married and had a son, Joshua, in 1982. During the marriage, Nichols engaged in a succession of part-time and short-term jobs: carpentry work, managing a grain elevator, and selling life insurance and real estate. According to Lana, she was the one with a career; Nichols was a house husband, who spent most of his time at home with the children cooking and gardening.
Nichols had never liked farm life, and in 1988, at the age of 33, he tried to escape it by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He was sent to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia for basic training. As the oldest man in his platoon, he had difficulty with the physical aspect of the training, and was sometimes called "grandpa" by the other men. However, he was soon made the platoon guide because of his age. Timothy McVeigh was in his platoon, and they quickly became close friends. They had a common background: Both men grew up in white rural areas and disliked working with blacks. Both had tried college for a while and had parents who were divorced. They shared political views and interests in gun collecting and the survivalist movement. The two were later stationed together at Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, where they met and became friends with their future accomplice, Michael Fortier.
Nichols's wife filed for divorce soon after he joined the Army. Due to a conflict over childcare, he requested and was given a hardship discharge in May 1989 to return home to take care of his son, who was seven years old at the time. As he departed, he told a fellow soldier that he would be starting his own military organization soon, and would have an unlimited supply of weapons.
In 1990, Nichols married a 17-year-old woman, Marife Torres, from the Philippines whom he met through a mail-order bride agency. When she arrived in Michigan several months later, she was pregnant with another man's child. The child died at age two when he suffocated in a plastic bag while Nichols was babysitting him. Marife suspected foul play, but there were no bruises or signs of trauma to the child. The death was ruled accidental. Nichols and Marife had two more children during their marriage.
Nichols and Torres frequently visited the Philippines, where she was working on a degree in physical therapy. He sometimes traveled to the Philippines alone, while she remained in Kansas.
Nichols left a cryptic note and a package of documents with his ex-wife, Lana (Walsh) Padilla, prior to one of his many visits to the Philippines. Upon returning from the visit to learn that she had prematurely opened a letter instructing her what to do in the event of his death, he made a series of telephone calls to a Cebu City boarding house. Nichols and Torres divorced after his arrest. Marife returned to the Philippines with the children.
Nichols' anti-government views developed and grew over the years. Nichols spent most of his adult life in the Lapeer and Sanilac County areas of Michigan where mistrust and resentment of the federal government was common, especially after bank repossessions of many farms in the 1980s. Neighbors said he attended meetings of anti-government groups, experimented with explosives and got more radical as time went on. In February 1992, he attempted to renounce his US citizenship by writing to the local county clerk in Michigan, stating that the political system was corrupt, and declaring himself a "non resident alien". Several months later, he appeared in court and tried to avoid responsibility for some of his credit card bills (he owed approximately $40,000 altogether), refusing to come before the bench, and shouting at the judge that the government had no jurisdiction over him. On October 19, 1992, he signed another document renouncing his US citizenship. In May 1993 Nichols appeared before a county judge regarding an $8,421 unpaid credit card debt. He also renounced his driver license.
McVeigh and Nichols grew closer after McVeigh's discharge from the Army. In December 1991, Nichols invited McVeigh to join him in Michigan and help him out selling military surplus at gun shows. For the next three years, McVeigh stayed with Nichols off and on. On April 19, 1993, Nichols was watching TV with McVeigh at the Nichols' farmhouse in Michigan when the ATF, Army and FBI attacked the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. When the compound went up in flames, McVeigh and Nichols were enraged and began to plot revenge on the federal government. In the fall of 1993, Nichols and McVeigh, who were living at the farm, became business partners, selling weapons and military surplus at gun shows. For a while, they lived an itinerant life, following the gun shows from town to town.
Nichols then went to Las Vegas to try working in construction but failed. Next, he went to central Kansas and was hired in March 1994 as a ranch hand in Marion, Kansas. In March 1994 he sent a letter to the clerk of Marion County, Kansas, saying he was not subject to the laws of the U.S. government and asked his employer not to withhold any federal taxes from his check. His employer said Nichols was hard-working but had unusual political views. In the fall of 1994 Nichols quit his job, telling his employer he was going into business with McVeigh.
On September 22, 1994, Terry Nichols and McVeigh rented a storage shed and began gathering supplies for the truck bomb. In late September or early October, Nichols and McVeigh stole dynamite and blasting caps from a nearby quarry. Nichols began purchasing large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and storing it in three rental storage units. Nichols also robbed an Arkansas gun dealer who had befriended him and McVeigh at various gun shows.
In February 1995 Nichols bought a small house in Herington, Kansas, with a cash down payment. In March 1995, he bought diesel fuel. On April 14, Nichols gave McVeigh some cash, according to McVeigh. On April 16, Easter Sunday, Nichols and McVeigh drove to Oklahoma City to drop off the getaway car. On April 18, the day before the bombing, Nichols helped McVeigh prepare the truck bomb at a lake near Herington. McVeigh remarked about Nichols's and Fortier's partial withdrawal from the plot, saying they "were men who liked to talk tough, but in the end their bitches and kids ruled." Nichols was at home in Kansas with his family when the bomb went off.
On April 21, Nichols learned he was wanted for questioning, turned himself in, and consented to a search of his home. The search turned up blasting caps, detonating cords, ground ammonium nitrate, barrels made of plastic similar to fragments found at the bombing site, 33 firearms, anti-government warfare literature, a receipt for ammonium nitrate fertilizer with McVeigh's fingerprints on it, a telephone credit card that McVeigh had used when he was shopping for bomb making equipment, and a hand-drawn map of downtown Oklahoma City. Nichols was held as a material witness to the bombing until he was charged on May 10. Nichols's family said the federal government was framing him and said this was proved by other explosives found inside the building.
Investigators also combed the Decker, Michigan, farm of James Nichols where Terry Nichols and McVeigh had stayed intermittently in the months preceding the bombing. James was held in custody on charges that he made small bombs on the farm but was released without charges on May 24, with the judge saying there was no evidence he was a danger to others.
McVeigh was tried before Nichols and sentenced to death. Former army buddy Michael Fortier testified against both McVeigh and Nichols. Fortier had entered into a federal plea agreement for reduced charges in return for his agreement to testify. He was charged with failing to notify authorities in advance of the crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Fortier testified that Nichols and McVeigh had expressed anti-government feelings and conspired to blow up the Murrah federal building. He said he helped McVeigh survey the building before the attack. He also testified that Nichols had robbed an Arkansas gun dealer to finance the cost of the bombing. Fortier provided "solid bricks of evidence" for the cases against McVeigh and Nichols, according to the prosecutor.
Nichols' wife Marife testified as a defense witness, but her story may have helped the prosecution's case. She said her husband had been living a double life prior to the bombing, using aliases, renting storage lockers and lying that he had broken off his relationship with McVeigh. She also testified that Nichols traveled to Oklahoma City three days before the bombing, supporting the prosecution's contention that Nichols helped McVeigh station a getaway car near the Murrah building. Marife also failed to give Nichols an alibi for April 18, 1995, the day the prosecution said Nichols helped McVeigh assemble the truck bomb.
Nichols was represented by criminal defense attorney Michael Tigar. The trial lasted nine weeks with the prosecution calling 100 witnesses tying Nichols to McVeigh and the bombing plot. The prosecution argued that Nichols helped McVeigh purchase and steal bomb ingredients, park the getaway car near the Murrah building and assemble the bomb. The defense attempted to cast doubt on the case against Nichols by calling witnesses who said they saw other men with McVeigh before the bombing and by claiming the government had manipulated the evidence against Nichols.
The jury deliberated for 41 hours over a period of six days, acquitting Nichols on December 24, 1997, of actually detonating the bomb, but convicting him of conspiring with McVeigh to use a weapon of mass destruction, a capital offense. They acquitted Nichols on the charges of first degree (premeditated) murder, but convicted him on the lesser charge of involuntary (unintentional) manslaughter in the deaths of the federal law enforcement officers.
In assessing why Nichols was not convicted of first degree murder, the Washington Post noted:
"There was no evidence that Nichols had rented the Ryder truck used to carry the bomb to Oklahoma City, and there was no one who could positively identify him as the purchaser of the two tons of ammonium nitrate, the major component in the bomb. Most problematic for the government was the compelling fact that Nichols was at home in Kansas when McVeigh detonated the truck."
Another theory is that some members of the jury believed Nichols's attorneys' arguments that he had withdrawn from the conspiracy before the bombing. His apparent remorse as shown by his crying several times during the testimony could also have swayed the jury.
After the penalty hearing concluded, the jury deliberated for 13 hours over two days on whether to give Nichols the death penalty but was deadlocked. U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch then had the option of giving Nichols life in prison with or without the possibility of parole. He sentenced Nichols to life in prison without parole, calling Nichols "an enemy of the Constitution" who had conspired to destroy everything the Constitution protects. Nichols showed no emotion. He was sent to the Federal Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado. On February 26, 1999, a federal appeals court affirmed Nichols' conviction and sentence.
After the federal jury deadlocked on the death penalty, which resulted in a life sentence, citizens of Oklahoma petitioned to empanel a state court grand jury to investigate the bombing. State representative Charles Key led a citizens group that circulated the petitions. It was hoped that evidence implicating other conspirators would be uncovered. A grand jury heard testimony for 18 months about allegations of other accomplices but returned only the indictments against Nichols in March 1999. Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane denied the state prosecution was conducted solely for the purpose of having Nichols executed, saying it was important Nichols be convicted of killing all the victims. "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," Lane said.
Nichols was brought from the prison in Colorado to Oklahoma in January 2000 to face the state trial on 160 capital counts of first-degree murder and one count each of fetal homicide, first-degree arson, and conspiracy. The prosecutor's goal was to get the death penalty.
During the two-month trial, the prosecution presented a "mountain of circumstantial evidence", calling 151 witnesses. Their star witness was Fortier, who said Nichols was intimately involved in the conspiracy and had helped obtain bomb ingredients including fertilizer that was mixed with high octane fuel. Fortier also testified that McVeigh and Nichols stole cord and blasting caps from a rock quarry, and that Nichols robbed a gun collector to obtain money for the plot. Nichols's lawyers said he was the "fall guy" and that others had conspired with McVeigh. They wanted to introduce evidence that a group of white supremacists had been McVeigh's accomplices. However, the judge did not allow them to do so, saying that the defense had not shown that any of these people committed acts in furtherance of the conspiracy. In their concluding argument, the defense said, "People who are still unknown assisted Timothy McVeigh." On May 26, 2004, the six-man, six-woman jury took five hours to reach guilty verdicts on all charges. When the verdict was read, Nichols showed no emotion, staring straight ahead.
The penalty phase of the trial started on June 1, 2004. The same jury that determined Nichols's guilt would also determine whether he would be put to death. During the five-day hearing, 87 witnesses were called including victims and family members of Nichols. Nichols's relatives testified that he was a loving family man. During the closing arguments, the prosecutor argued for the death penalty, stating that 168 people had died so that Nichols and McVeigh "could make a political statement". The defense argued that Nichols had been controlled by a "dominant, manipulative" McVeigh and urged jurors not to be persuaded by the "flood of tears" of the victims who testified. The defense also said that Nichols had "sincerely" converted to Christianity. After 19½ hours of deliberation over a three-day period, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on the death penalty. With the death penalty no longer an option, Nichols spoke publicly for the first time in the proceedings, making a lengthy statement laced with religious references to Judge Steven W. Taylor. Nichols also apologized for the murders and offered to write to survivors to "assist in their healing process". Judge Taylor called Nichols a terrorist and said "No American citizen has ever brought this kind of devastation; you are in U.S. history the No. 1 mass murderer in all of U.S. history" and sentenced Nichols to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Nichols was returned to the federal prison in Colorado.
Darlene Welch, whose niece was killed in the explosion, said she "didn't appreciate being preached to" by Nichols and that she regretted that "he won't stand before God sooner."
Acting on a tip from reputed mobster Greg Scarpa, Jr. (son of mobster Greg Scarpa, Sr.), a fellow inmate of Nichols, the FBI searched the crawl space of Nichols's former home in Kansas, 10 years after the bombing. They found explosives in boxes, wrapped in plastic, buried under a foot of rock. The tipster had indicated that the explosives were buried before the attack.
McVeigh, Nichols and Fortier were the only defendants indicted in the bombing. Nichols denied his involvement in the plot until 2004.
Nichols's mother claimed that her son suffers from Asperger syndrome and was manipulated by McVeigh and didn't know what the bomb was for.
In a May 2005 letter that he wrote to a relative of two of the victims, Nichols claimed that an Arkansas gun dealer also conspired in the 1995 bombing plot by donating some of the explosives that were used.
In a 2006 letter requesting that a judge give his son a light sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, battery of a police officer, and possession of a stolen vehicle, Nichols admitted his participation in the Oklahoma City bombing but said that McVeigh had forced and intimidated him into cooperating.
In a 2007 affidavit, Nichols claimed that in 1992 McVeigh claimed to have been recruited for undercover missions while serving in the military. Nichols also said that in 1995 McVeigh told him that FBI official Larry Potts, who had supervised the Ruby Ridge and Waco operations, had directed McVeigh to blow up a government building. Nichols claimed that he and McVeigh had learned how to make the bomb from individuals they met while attending gun shows. In the same affidavit, Nichols admitted that he and McVeigh stole eight cases of the gel type explosive Tovex from a Marion, Kansas quarry, some of which was later used in the Oklahoma City truck bomb. He admitted that he had helped McVeigh mix the bomb ingredients in the truck the day before the attack, but he denied that he knew the exact target of the bomb. Nichols wanted to testify in more detail in a videotaped deposition, but a federal appeals court ruled against it in 2009.