Jury debates guilt of Atlanta courthouse shooter
By Greg Bluestein
ATLANTA (AP) -- A man who escaped from custody during his rape trial and launched a deadly courthouse shooting spree that claimed the lives of a judge and three others was convicted of murder Friday more than three years after the rampage.
Brian Nichols, 36, could face the death penalty for killing a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent in the violence that began at the Fulton County Courthouse in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
Nichols had confessed to the killings, but claimed he was legally insane and gripped by a delusional compulsion that he was a slave rebelling against authority. Jurors rejected that argument, finding him guilty of murder and dozens of other charges, including aggravated assault, false imprisonment, hijacking a motor vehicle and armed robbery.
In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors said Nichols concocted his delusions to avoid the death penalty. A psychiatrist who testified for the state said he found Nichols mentally ill, but would not diagnose him as delusional. Nichols' attorneys said phone conversations in jail were evidence of his delusions.
"It didn't have anything to do with insanity or delusion. The defendant was angry and he was frustrated," said Clint Rucker, a Fulton County prosecutor. "He is conniving, he is cold-blooded, he is vicious, he is remorseless and he is extremely, extremely dangerous."
Nichols' lawyers contended their client is no criminal mastermind and that his murderous plan "only succeeded because a thousand things went wrong."
"Rise above the emotion and the heartbreak and the sorrow of this case," defense attorney Josh Moore urged the jury.
Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom in downtown Atlanta where he was being tried for rape on March 11, 2005, when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree. He killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau and Deputy Hoyt Teasley in a 12-minute span and then fled to the busy street outside the courthouse.
He escaped downtown Atlanta in a stolen car and managed to evade the hundreds of police officers searching for him through the night. He headed for Atlanta's posh Buckhead neighborhood, where he shot and killed federal agent David Wilhelm outside the house he was renovating.
He was captured the next day after a woman he took hostage, Ashley Smith Robinson, alerted police of his whereabouts. Smith Robinson soon was credited with bringing a peaceful ending to the rampage by, in her account, appealing to his religious beliefs and giving him illegal drugs from her hidden stash.
"I said whatever was necessary to get on his good side, I guess," she testified in court last month.
The trial was held amid high security in a municipal courthouse a few blocks from the scene of the shootings. Police cordoned off the streets outside the building and visitors were screened through two separate checkpoints.
Since Nichols was arrested three years ago, his case has been beset by complications that have outraged a community seeking to recover from the notorious shootings.
Nichols had been accused of plotting an escape from jail with his pen-pal girlfriend. Lawmakers furious at a defense bill that tops $1.8 million have used the trial as a rallying cry to cut funding to Georgia's fledgling public defender system. And the district attorney sued the presiding judge, Hilton Fuller, who later stepped down after he was quoted as saying of Nichols, "everyone in the world knows he did it."
As the verdict was read, Nichols sat stoically and silently. Relatives of the victims dabbed at their eyes, but exploded in tears and congratulatory hugs in the adjoining courtroom where they gathered after the verdict.
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Attorneys and prosecutors declined to speak to reporters until Nichols is sentenced.