Jury debates guilt of Atlanta courthouse shooter



Brian Nichols, center, appears in court at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. Nichols was in shackles and was escorted by deputies. (AP Photo)

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By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press

ATLANTA — Jurors on Thursday began deliberating the fate of a confessed gunman who says he was legally insane when he killed four people in a shooting spree that began at a downtown Atlanta courthouse.

Brian Nichols, 36, faces the death penalty in the fatal shootings of a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent in the 2005 rampage. But he has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming he was gripped by a delusional compulsion that he was a slave rebelling against authority.

The 12 jurors have several options, including convicting or exonerating him, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. Another option, which is rare in Georgia's judicial system, would require the prison system to evaluate Nichols and determine a punishment.

If a jury returns either of the guilty verdicts, the panel must then decide if he deserves the death sentence. If he's found not guilty by reason of insanity, he will likely go to a state mental hospital.

During the six-week trial, Nichols attorneys and a psychologist say phone conversations while he was in jail were evidence of his delusions. A psychiatrist who testified for the state said he found Nichols was mentally ill although he would not diagnose him as delusional.

During closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors said Nichols concocted the stories of his delusions to avoid capital punishment.

"It didn't have anything to do with insanity or delusion. The defendant was angry and he was frustrated," said Clint Rucker, a prosecutor. "He is conniving, he is cold-blooded, he is vicious, he is remorseless and he is extremely, extremely dangerous."

His attorneys argued 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," said defense attorney Josh Moore. "Look at the evidence and weigh it with fairness. It's going to take courage, but we know at the end of the day you will come to a just conclusion."

Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom where he was being tried for rape on March 11, 2005, when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and started his shooting spree. He then evaded the hundreds of police on his trail, fleeing to suburban Gwinnett County.

He was captured a day later after a woman he took hostage, Ashley Smith Robinson, alerted police of his whereabouts.

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