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Atlanta courthouse shooting trial set to open

The courthouse killings case against Brian Nichols was supposed to be as open-and-shut as they come.
Image: Brian Nichols
Brian Nichols, right, listens to his defense attorney Henderson Hill, addressing the court during a pretrial hearing Thursday, March 6, 2008 in Atlanta. Nichols is accused of killing a judge, a deputy sheriff and two other after escaping from the Fulton County Courthouse in 2005. Stanley Leary / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The courthouse killings case against Brian Nichols was supposed to be as open-and-shut as they come.

There were hordes of witnesses, hours of surveillance video and his lengthy statement to investigators after his arrest, when police say he confessed to a rampage that left four people dead.

Even Nichols' defense team has conceded Nichols killed a judge, court reporter, sheriff's deputy and federal agent on March 11, 2005, in a spree that began at the county courthouse in downtown Atlanta. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys plan to argue he was the victim of a "delusional compulsion" during the killings.

With the murder trial set to start Thursday, more than three years after the killings, frustrated prosecutors are trying to keep the death penalty case on track as defense lawyers engage in maneuvers to whittle down the prosecution's mountain of evidence.

Case has many twists
Both sides must contend with a case that has wound through more twists than an airport thriller: A state-funded defense bill of at least $1.8 million, outraged lawmakers, an alleged escape plot, allegations that a prosecutor committed crimes of her own and the district attorney suing the presiding judge, who later stepped down.

The developments have alternately astonished and outraged a community trying to close the books on the shootings that stunned Atlanta and turned Fulton County's seat of justice into a crime scene.

"The defense team has to have the resources to deal with the scope of the charges, and that's created a time problem and a money problem," said Anne S. Emanuel, a Georgia State University law professor. "But obviously it's extraordinarily frustrating to everyone looking at it because guilt is simply not an issue: He's the person that killed the victims."

Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom in the Fulton County Courthouse when he allegedly beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree.

He is accused of killing four people: Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm. Nichols surrendered the next day after allegedly taking a woman hostage in her suburban Atlanta home.

Funding forces delay
Jury selection opened in January 2007 but was delayed soon after because of funding problems.

Judge Hilton Fuller suspended the trial indefinitely in October 2007 because the state public defender's office cut off funding to Nichols' attorneys amid a budget crunch. District Attorney Paul Howard sued Fuller, saying the delays were creating "an emergency situation," and called for the Georgia Supreme Court to intervene.

Fuller was targeted by a special legislative inquiry, giving angry state legislators a platform to attack publicly funded defense attorneys whose costs have ballooned to more than $1.8 million.

State lawmakers approved new measures this year to ban senior judges like Fuller — who do not face re-election — from hearing death penalty cases. They also tightened the public defender system's budget.

As the case has sputtered along, authorities say Nichols stayed busy. He was suspected of enlisting his pen-pal girlfriend, a paralegal and at least two sheriff's deputies in a scheme to break out of the Fulton County Jail.

The alleged plot is being investigated by a special prosecutor, who so far has not filed any charges.

Then the trial suddenly lost its leader: Fuller was forced to step down in January after he was quoted in The New Yorker magazine as saying of Nichols, "everyone in the world knows he did it."

Keeping case on track
New judge James Bodiford has tried to keep the case on track. He has had to handle defense attorneys' attempts to challenge the credibility of a former prosecutor, Gayle Abramson, who tried Nichols for rape.

They claim Abramson was involved in criminal activity while she prosecuted Nichols, and are questioning the integrity of the underlying rape prosecution. Abramson has called the allegation "inaccurate" and prosecutors have accused the defense team of attempting a "smear campaign."

Once trial begins, it's likely to last months. As many as 600 witnesses could be called. Written evidence runs to the thousands of pages.

But first, prosecutors and defense attorneys must painstakingly select 12 impartial jurors from a pool of hundreds of county residents. The judge also must determine whether the case can even be held in the county courthouse, which defense attorneys fear could taint the jurors.

Finding a fair jury to decide one of the most notorious cases in modern Atlanta history could be the trickiest task.

"The jury selection is going to be the most difficult part," said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County prosecutor. "They all have to take an oath that they haven't prejudged the case, and that's going to be hard to say."