DENVER _ Sloppy evidence. Arrogant FBI agents. Ignoring leads. The stinging criticism of the government's Oklahoma City bombing case against Terry Nichols is a prosecutor's nightmare for one simple reason: It came from the jury. In a bitter disappointment to families of the 168 people who died in the blast, the seven women and five men who convicted Nichols of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter deadlocked on his punishment Wednesday and were dismissed. Nichols will not join convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh on the federal government's death row. The worst penalty U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch can impose for Nichols' part in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history is life in prison without parole. No sentencing date was set. With that task left to Matsch, prosecutors faced the uncomfortable fact that their case not only failed to convince jurors that Nichols was a murderer but that he even played a key role in the bombing. "I think that the government perhaps really dropped the ball," said jury forewoman Niki Deutchman, who criticized the FBI for halting its investigation after arresting Nichols and McVeigh. "I think there are other people out there," she said, recalling defense witnesses who saw others with McVeigh before the bombing. "I think this was a horrible thing to have done ... and I doubt two people were able to bring it off." She also claimed FBI agents were "arrogant" when they didn't use a tape recorder during a 9 1/2-hour interview with Nichols, miscounted fingerprints on key pieces of evidence and allowed drill bits seized from Nichols' home to become rusty when an FBI lab flooded. "Maybe it's time for the government to be more respectful and be more aware of each of us people with inalienable rights," said Mrs. Deutchman, an obstetrics nurse. "That may be part of the message from this whole incident in the first place." The comments infuriated relatives of those killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing. "I think that that jury was very anti-government from the way that she talked, that they were mad at the government before they ever went in there and didn't go in there with an open mind ... ," said Roy Sells, who lost his wife, Leora Lee. "I don't think this jury understood or had enough gumption to want to do this case the way it should have been done," added Fred Anderson, whose wife, Rebecca, was killed when she was struck by debris while helping victims. Now, the survivors' hopes for punishment rest in Oklahoma City, where District Attorney Bob Macy has vowed to try Nichols and McVeigh on state murder charges and press for the death penalty. Upon learning of the jury deadlock, Nichols, 42, was expressionless. Then he smiled and hugged one of his lawyers after jurors left the room. Jurors deliberated 13 1/2 hours over two days, bickering over Nichols' involvement in the plot. "Some people felt he wasn't involved at all in building the bomb," Mrs. Deutchman said before echoing an oft-repeated mantra from the defense: "I think he was building a life." "He may also have been building a bomb. I don't know." Juror Holly Hanlin, too, felt the government failed to fully prove its case. "We couldn't find enough evidence to convince at least all of us that he intended, that he was involved from the very beginning, that he built the bomb. We felt that evidence was shaky at best," said Ms. Hanlin, an executive at a temporary employment agency. When it came time to sentencing, they found themselves in something like a "family argument." "What one person saw as concrete evidence another person couldn't quite see that way," Ms Hanlin said. "That doesn't mean that they're wrong. It just means the evidence wasn't strong enough for them." Said Mrs. Deutchman: "There were a lot of things about the evidence that seems to be sloppy." One of the prosecutors, Pat Ryan, said people should not "treat this as if this is some great loss." "All it does is simply delay the day Terry Nichols will be punished," he said. "This was a troubled jury. I respect the judicial system. Sometimes it breaks down, and people can't come together. This is one of those unfortunate times." The deadlock was a far cry from the unanimous call for death from McVeigh's jury, which took one vote to convict him and one vote to condemn him. Legal analysts, however, said the evidence against Nichols was much less damning. Prosecutors conceded that Nichols was at home in Herington, Kan., when the bomb went off, but said he had worked with McVeigh to build and pay for the 4,000-pound fuel-and-fertilizer bomb. They said he also stashed the getaway car used by McVeigh. Evidence included a receipt in Nichols' kitchen drawer for a ton of fertilizer and a letter to McVeigh telling his former Army buddy to "go for it." The plot, prosecutors argued, was cooked up to avenge the deadly federal siege of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in 1993. But Mrs. Deutchman said she didn't think the government proved that Nichols purchased fertilizer used in the bomb or that he robbed a gun collector to finance the bombing. Nichols was convicted of conspiracy, she said, because jurors believed "he knew there was something big and nasty about to happen." "I think there are some victims who probably feel the need for vengeance," she said. "I think that revenge and vengeance are very different from justice."