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Court upholds Oklahoma bombing conviction against Nichols


October 12, 1999
Web posted at: 10:31 p.m. EDT (0231 GMT)

In this story:

Death row inmates not guaranteed free counsel

Other important tests on the agenda

Request for Hasidic Jewish public school denied


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday let stand the conviction and life sentence of Terry Nichols for conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

The justices, without comment or dissent, rejected an appeal by Nichols claiming a federal judge unfairly excluded the testimony of a key witness at his trial and wrongly applied guidelines for first-degree murder in handing down the sentence.

Lawyers for Nichols had argued his federal conviction for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction should be overturned because prosecutors failed to prove he intended to kill anyone.

A jury in December 1997 found Nichols guilty of a conspiracy to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. Prosecutors have called the truck bomb attack the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

The jury also convicted Nichols of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of eight federal agents in the building when the bomb went off.

Nichols's former Army buddy, Timothy McVeigh, was convicted in a separate trial of murder, conspiracy and weapons-related charges for the bombing, and has been sentenced to death. The Supreme Court denied McVeigh's appeal in March.

Death row inmates not guaranteed free counsel

The court on Tuesday also rejected without comment a Georgia murderer's appeal, leaving intact a ruling in which the Georgia Supreme Court said prisoners have "no state or federal constitutional right to an appointed lawyer" after they exhaust their first round of appeals.

A 1989 Supreme Court decision in a Virginia case said the state did not have to provide free lawyers for death row inmates who lost their initial round of appeals. But that 5-4 ruling was limited in its scope by one member of the court's majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who noted that no one in Virginia had been denied a lawyer's help in such proceedings.

Georgia death row inmate Exzavious Lee Gibson says he wanted a lawyer but was not given one when he stood before a state judge in his second round of appeals.

Gibson had been convicted in 1990 of murdering Douglas Coley during a robbery at an Eastman, Georgia, grocery store. State prosecutors said he stabbed, slashed or cut Coley more than three dozen times before stealing almost $500.

Gibson, after losing all direct appeals, received help in preparing a habeas appeal that said his trial lawyer failed to provide constitutionally adequate help.

But when it came time for a court hearing on that appeal, Gibson did not have a lawyer to help him. He is described by his new lawyers as borderline mentally retarded, with an I.Q. of 76 to 82.

Other important tests on the agenda

Also on Tuesday the court was asked to decide whether polluters sued by private citizens under federal law should be able to avoid penalties by stopping their misconduct while the case is under way.

The case came from action brought in federal court in South Carolina in 1992 over wastewater discharges from a hazardous waste incinerator. The suit brought by three environmental groups' claims that mercury-discharge limits were violated.

A federal appeals court threw out a $405,800 fine against the firm, Laidlaw Environmental Services. The court ruled that since the company had ceased the violation and the fine would be paid to the federal government, the case was moot.

On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments on whether congress went too far in limiting states' rights when it passed the age discrimination act.

This appeal stems from an action against Florida State University by faculty members claiming age bias. But in the form in which it has landed before the high court, it has taken on added importance as a test of states' rights, a topic which stands to be a major concern for the U.S. justices during this session.

Request for Hasidic Jewish public school denied

In other cases Tuesday, including three involving church and state, the court:

  • Refused to let New York resurrect a public school district for a Hasidic Jewish community. The court, by a 6-3 vote, turned away the state's argument that its third attempt to create a district for disabled children in the Kiryas Joel community does not breach the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

  • Let Maine subsidize children attending private, nonreligious schools while refusing to spend state money for those who go to religious schools.

  • Refused to let Pennsylvania include religious publications and items from the materials it exempts from sales taxes. Although the Tuesday decision sets no legal precedent, it does leave the many other states with similar tax laws vulnerable to challenge.

  • Shot down an appeal in which two Louisiana men said the Constitution's Second Amendment gives them and all U.S. citizens a personal right to own a gun. The court, without comment, thwarted the two men from owning hunting rifles because they were convicted of serious, but nonviolent, tax crimes.

  • Rejected an appeal by Maryland seeking to use evidence illegally obtained by the police in civil forfeiture cases. The court refused to reconsider its 1965 ruling that the exclusionary rule -- which prohibits evidence obtained by police through illegal means to be used in a criminal trial - - applies to civil forfeiture cases.

  • Decided to grant a hearing to ranching and farming groups challenging the Clinton administration's regulation of livestock grazing on millions of acres of federal land throughout the West. The court voted to study an appeal that says the administration's 1995 rules violate a 65-year-old law and threaten the livelihood of tens of thousands of ranchers.

The Associated Press, Reuters, and CNN contributed to this report.

High court reviews Starr's appeal in Hubbell tax case
Mumia Abu-Jamal loses Supreme Court appeal
October 4, 1999
Nichols gets life for Oklahoma bombing
June 4, 1998

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