The lessons of Atlanta: Former cop's letter warned of lax security two years before murderous courthouse rampage
Almost two years to the day before that Fulton County courtroom in Atlanta became a bloody killing field, an ex-cop-turned-defense-attorney cried out in a letter to the editor of a lawyers' newspaper for the "sleepy heads" responsible for protecting people in the courthouse to "wake up, wake up."
Dennis Scheib, formerly a deputy sheriff in Orlando, Fla., and then a police officer for eight years on Atlanta Police Department before getting his law degree, warned: "The inmate security and security in the courtroom absolutely is 100% below any minimum of safety."
Having practiced for more than 30 years in courtrooms in Japan, Europe and "throughout the United States," he predicted that the handling of potentially violent defendants in Atlanta was "a tragedy just waiting to happen. It's only a matter of time." That was March 19, 2003.
Flash forward two years. On the morning of Mar. 11, Scheib was sitting with other lawyers in a jury box in a Fulton County courtroom while a judge started down his call calendar. "A couple of minutes after 9 a.m., deputies ran into the courtroom with their guns out and yelled, 'There's been a shooting! Everyone stay in the courtroom! Nobody leave!'" Scheib recalls. Six or seven minutes later, someone frantically reported that in a courtroom just down the hall, a defendant in a rape trial -- the suspect was later identified as Brian Nichols -- had killed a judge with a shot to the back of the head. When a terrified court reporter leaped from her chair, he shot and killed her too. When he hit the street moments later, he also fatally shot a sheriff's deputy who tried to intercept him near an emergency exit, and later he was suspected of killing another LEO, an off-duty federal agent who just happened to be in his flight path.
The carnage began when Nichols, 33, a six-foot-one-inch former college football linebacker, pummeled a five-foot-one-inch 51-year-old grandmother and sheriff's deputy who was preparing him for court, then took her gun. The two were alone in a holding cell.
Eerily, Scheib had written in his protest letter two years back: "There are some female deputies that ... open up the holding cells and [try to handle] large men by themselves without any backup. This scenario lends itself to ... the overpowering of the deputy, the assault of the deputy, the taking over of a courtroom, confiscating the deputy's handgun or any other weapon, the shooting of unarmed personnel in the courtroom, the shooting of judges."
Before he sent his letter, Scheib, who has a master's degree in criminal justice with an emphasis on corrections, had spotted a deputy walking into a group of inmates headed for court-with her gun on. "I grabbed her and pulled her out and said, 'What in the world are you doing?!'"
Now as Atlanta soul-searches on how its courthouse security became so lethally lax, Scheib shares his views of what went wrong in a one-on-one interview with PoliceOne.com. He discusses six critical inadequacies that made Brian Nichols' killing frenzy possible ... and that should serve as a sobering wake-up call for courtrooms across America.
1. Inadequate staffing.
Between 250 and 400 criminal defendants a day are cycled through the Fulton County Courthouse's 32 courtrooms, Scheib says, making it the busiest seat of justice in the Southeast. Yet the number of deputies assigned to manage this horde "gets less and less. The county commissioners don't allocate the money needed" for adequate equipment and personnel.
Commonly a single deputy is expected to escort three or four defendants simultaneously once they're brought from the county jail to the courthouse complex, Scheib says. On "many occasions" he has been in a courtroom where a violent offender is on trial and has noticed that not one deputy is posted there as security. In effect when that happens, the courtroom is unprotected in the presence of murderers, rapists, armed robbers and miscellaneous others who, like Brian Nichols, may be in desperate circumstances. (Nichols was facing a potential life sentence in his rape case, and was headed into his last day of trial when he erupted, Scheib notes.)
"The deputies are good people, excellent officers," he says, "but they're put in a bad position, overwhelmed by sheer numbers and a breakdown of good judgment" by higher-ups.
2. Inadequate reaction to danger cues.
A day before his killing spree, two shanks -- reportedly pieces of metal door fittings sharpened into weapons -- had been recovered from Nichols' socks in the courthouse. The judge hearing his case -- the same judge killed on Mar. 11 -- ordered "added security."
"Obviously Nichols was high risk," Scheib points out. "He was about to get life, maybe, and he's bringing weapons to the courtroom." But whatever the judge had in mind as enhanced safety, the reality was that the next day just one middle-aged woman was detailed to escort him to court.
When Nichols was brought back to the courthouse after the killings, "16 deputies now escorted him," Scheib says. "He couldn't have farted! From extreme to extreme. Does no one have any common sense?"
3. Inadequate deployment.
The drill at Fulton County Courthouse, according to Scheib, is that defendants are brought from the jail in buses and locked initially in large cells in the basement. From there, they are taken by elevator to smaller holding cells where they are unhandcuffed, allowed to change from their prisoner jumpsuit into civilian clothes, and then escorted to court.
The deputy assigned to guide Nichols through this process is described by Scheib as "very, very nice, hard working. If you asked her to attack a mountain she'd give it her best shot."
Compared to her, physically, Nichols was a mountain. "She was not in shape or in any way able to handle him," Scheib says. "When you're dealing with someone like that, who is facing possible life in prison, it should not be a one-on-one scenario with any officer, ever."
4. Inadequate weapons control.
Although Scheib has seen "too many guns come too close" to violent felons during the daily maneuverings around the courthouse, authorities claim that the deputy dealing with Nichols had locked her sidearm in a lockbox in the holding cell area, presumably before she made first contact with the defendant. It is said that she put the key in her pocket.
There's some lingering skepticism, but accepting that scenario, Scheib says that the key should have been safely retained by a supervisor, and reinforces that wherever her gun was, the deputy should not have been left alone with Nichols.
"He's a very smart guy. He'd been up and down to court" during his rape trial and "had seen what happens" procedurally. "I'm sure he planned things out."
5. Inadequate prisoner control.
The courthouse holding cells are not fitted with a pass-through opening that allows for a prisoner to stick his hands out to be uncuffed and recuffed while locked securely inside a cell.
The doctor of the 51-year-old deputy who was beaten says she does not remember the actual attack, but it appears that she had opened the cell door and had unlocked one cuff so Nichols could change clothes. She apparently did not retain a grip on the cuffs as a leverage opportunity and if she knew or tried any takedowns they were no match for the muscular Nichols' sudden explosion of power.
Scheib believes "he hit her backhanded with the cuffs" and slammed her against a wall. "She fell and hit her head, knocked out." She suffered severe injuries and appears destined for a long stay "in a spinal rehabilitation clinic," Scheib says.
Nichols allegedly took the deputy's keys, including the lockbox key and the key to the holding area door, took her gun and headed for the courtroom where he was expected to be on trial momentarily. Along the way he surprised an aging deputy in a private office, disarmed him, handcuffed him and shoved him into a closet.
He entered the courtroom through a door behind the bench where his judge sat…and delivered his first fatal round of the day.
6. Inadequate surveillance.
The most bitter irony of this tragedy is that the holding area where Nichols attacked the deputy is under video surveillance. His initiation of the attack and escape with her gun were caught on tape. Unfortunately, nobody was watching the monitor in the control room, as two deputies were supposed to be. Why? "That's under investigation," Scheib says.
In his prescient letter of March 2003, Scheib contrasted conditions in the Atlanta courthouse with what he regularly experiences in a neighboring county. There, he noted, other deputies are always "watching while the prisoners are being handled (uncuffed/cuffed) ... (At) all times there is armed backup only a few feet away. At no time ... have I ever seen a one-on-one (one deputy, one inmate) situation that appeared to be remotely unsafe."
PoliceOne asked Scheib how he read the prevailing mindset among LE personnel in the Atlanta courthouse prior to Nichols' attacks, expecting him to mention complacency. Instead he answered: "Overworked, trying to do the best they could. There was so much for so few people to do, they were in a quandary how to get it done.
"It's not the deputy sheriffs who caused these dangerous situations. It's the lack of an organized system of security and the manpower to implement such a system that put a lot of people in great peril."