11/22/2005

Lawyer: Ga. courthouse shooting could have been prevented

By HARRY R. WEBER
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA- A courthouse shooting rampage that led to the deaths of a judge and three others could have been avoided if a tentative plea bargain in the alleged gunman's rape case not fallen through, a defense lawyer said.

Brian Nichols' lawyer in the rape case, Barry Hazen, said Monday he is "100 percent confident" the March 11 rampage that started at the Fulton County Courthouse would not have happened had the plea deal been approved at a hearing the month before.

"He would likely not have ever come back to that courthouse," Hazen told The Associated Press.

Nichols is accused of killing a judge and a court reporter, then killing a sheriff's deputy who chased him outside the courthouse and a federal agent who encountered him at a home a few miles away. He surrendered the next day after allegedly taking a woman hostage in a suburban apartment.

The revelation about the plea deal came in testimony Monday by Nikki Berger, director of victim and witness assistance for the Fulton County District Attorney's Office, during a hearing at which defense lawyers in Nichols' murder case asked a judge to disqualify the prosecutor's office from handling the trial.

Berger said she had been asked by her office to be in the courtroom for the February plea hearing but that it didn't go through. She did not say why. Hazen also refused to say whether it was Nichols or the prosecutor whose mind had changed. Prosecution spokesman Erik Friedly said he could not comment.

After the plea bargain collapsed, the rape case went to trial and later ended in a hung jury. It was during a retrial that Nichols is accused of overpowering a deputy, grabbing her gun and entering the courtroom where his trial was to resume. There, police say, he shot the judge and court reporter.

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