by Harry R. Weber
The Associated Press
ATLANTA, Ga. - A sheriff's report on a deadly courthouse rampage said the suspect was able to enter the chambers of the judge slain in the attack and hold the occupants hostage because the door was unlocked and a buzzer entry system was not activated.
A portion of the report on last month's attack, which left a judge and three others dead, was released Thursday. A judge was expected to decide Friday whether to release the rest of the report.
After handcuffing a lawyer, deputy and an unspecified number of other people, suspect Brian Nichols entered the courtroom where his rape trial was to resume later in the day and killed Judge Rowland Barnes and his court reporter, the report says.
"We understand there was a practice of the door being left open," Michael Cooke, chief deputy of the Fulton County Sheriff's Department, said at a news conference.
The report on the March 11 attack at a downtown courthouse also says that it took a court officer 21 minutes to reach a deputy whom Nichols allegedly overpowered and stole her gun in order to start the killing spree. Outside the courthouse, a sheriff's deputy was killed and a federal agent was killed elsewhere.
The 15 pages of the report that were released Thursday following a court order include a timeline of the attack, an incident narrative and an executive summary. Witness statements, which make up the bulk of the report, remained sealed.
The sheriff's department, responsible for security at the courthouse, has been widely criticized for its handling of Nichols, who was unshackled at the time of the attack and had previously been caught with homemade knives hidden in his shoes.
The report says that after the weapons were found on March 9, two days before the attack, Nichols told officials that he was "using the contraband for arch support in his shoes" and wrote a statement to that effect.
In response, the jail staff issued an incident report and forwarded it through the chain of command, but "took no further action" because "Nichols had posed no serious threat and had exhibited no other signs which might lead to trouble."
A major unresolved question since the attack has been why only one person was guarding Nichols at the time. Cooke on Thursday said the sheriff's department policy is to allow one deputy to escort up to four inmates at once. He said that policy was followed and that Deputy Cynthia Hall, who was overpowered, had escorted Nichols safely on other occasions.
Hall, 51, has spent three weeks recovering from the attack, which left her with a bruise on her brain and bone fractures around her right eye. She remembers nothing of the attack and was recently told about the deaths that followed Nichols' escape.
Another hearing will be held Friday to discuss defense objections to releasing the remainder of the report. Media lawyers will be allowed to address the court then.
Defense lawyer Chris Adams said release of the witness statements could jeopardize Nichols' right to a fair trial. He noted that some of the material includes alleged statements made by Nichols.
Nichols, who is being held without bail, has not been charged in the shootings. Nichols waived his right to be in court Thursday.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.