A Break for One of the Oklahoma Defendants

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The horrific Oklahoma City bombing blipped back into the news on Wednesday when a three-judge federal panel threw out the sentence imposed on one of the peripheral figures in the case. Michael Fortier, a former Army buddy of convicted bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, was granted a new sentencing hearing. The reason: The sentencing judge improperly applied federal guidelines for first-degree murder sentences rather than those for involuntary manslaughter sentences. Fortier was originally sentenced to 12 years in jail after cooperating with authorities; he pleaded guilty to failing to alert law enforcement about the bombing plot, helping McVeigh sell stolen weapons and lying to the FBI. But the evidence did not show that Fortier acted with malice or that his actions fell under felony murder rules, said the appellate panel, thus his sentence should not have fallen under the tougher guidelines.

"This ruling does not go to the substance of the prosecution," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "It merely affects the sentence. But it does indicate the appeals court was troubled by the fact that Fortier only played an incidental role." As a result of Wednesday’s ruling, Fortier could soon walk out of prison. He has been behind bars for nearly four years, and, according to his lawyer, the maximum he could receive under the manslaughter guidelines is 46 months.