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Atlanta shootings suspect calm in court

Brian Nichols is escorted to a hearing before a judge in Atlanta on Tuesday. The hearing was at a court facility in the Fulton County Jail.Ric Feld / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Four days after escaping from an Atlanta courtroom and allegedly shooting four people to death, Brian Nichols appeared in another courtroom Tuesday, this time for a status hearing as authorities sort out charges.

Nichols appeared before a magistrate judge on a refiled rape charge, which is being used to hold him as he's investigated in the courthouse rampage and the death of a federal agent as he eluded authorities.

His hands shackled at his waist and his ankles shackled together, Nichols remained calm throughout the brief hearing. He only spoke once, when the judge asked him if he had any questions.

"Not at this time," he said.

Nineteen officers lined the walls of the cinder block room for the hearing, which was held at the Fulton County Jail.

Assistant District Attorney Michele McCutcheon informed Cox that the state will pursue four charges of murder against Nichols. Nichols was held without bond and no future court hearings were set.

Nichols, 33, was arrested Saturday morning after an alleged rampage that began when he overpowered a sheriff’s deputy who was escorting him to his rape trial. Nichols surrendered peacefully after hours of talks with a hostage, Ashley Smith, who is credited with convincing him to give up.

He had been in federal custody since his arrest on a federal firearms charge. But officials announced Monday that the charge had been dropped so he could be handed over to Fulton County authorities, who will likely be the first to prosecute him.

He faces federal and state charges in the deaths of a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent. Prosecutors will likely decide within 30 days what new charges to file, said Fulton County district attorney’s spokesman Erik Friedly.

Nichols was being retried for rape and other charges when he escaped Friday. That case was declared a mistrial Monday at the request of Nichols’ attorney, Friedly said.

Barry Hazen, Nichols’ attorney on the rape charge, has said continuing with that earlier case would be a waste of time and tax dollars. “He’s facing four homicide charges that could carry the death penalty. In the best-case scenario, he’s in jail for life. What’s the point?” Hazen said Sunday.

No jurors in court this week
On Monday, nervous workers and visitors lined up as the Fulton County Courthouse reopened under heightened security.

No jurors were going to be called to the courthouse this week, said Friedly.

With no jurors present, deputies will be able to transport inmates into courtrooms with handcuffs or any other restraints. The law requires that defendants on trial not be handcuffed as they enter the courtroom, to make sure the sight of cuffs doesn’t unfairly influence the jury.

Convicted felon Richard Jadwin, 20, who was at the courthouse to check in with the sheriff’s department, said he felt uncomfortable being at the building.

“I ain’t even going to lie, I’m kind of nervous,” said Jadwin, who wouldn’t say what crime he was convicted of.

Those who stepped off the elevators in front of the courtroom of Judge Rowland Barnes saw crime scene tape and flowers where Barnes and his court reporter, Julie Brandau, were killed.

Both victims had been working Nichols’ trial. Sheriff’s Sgt. Hoyt Teasley was killed outside the courthouse, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Wilhelm was killed later.

Judge: Ordeal was 'preventable'
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday that a courthouse surveillance camera recorded Nichols’ initial surprise attack on Deputy Cynthia Hall but that no one in the control center noticed the assault.

“It’s not just horrible, it was preventable,” Senior Superior Court Judge Philip Etheridge told the newspaper.

A video camera that is supposed to be monitored by two guards in a command post shows Nichols lunging at Hall and knocking her backward, according to a law enforcement official who saw the tape.

Etheridge said Hall, a petite 51-year-old, should not have been alone with Nichols, a former college linebacker who had been found with two sharpened door hinges in his socks earlier in the week.

Hall was in stable condition on Tuesday.