Courthouse rampage trial opens in Georgia
Gunmen called evil, methodical
ATLANTA - Prosecutors played a haunting audiotape of a 2005 courthouse shooting rampage that left four people dead as they launched their case against the alleged gunman yesterday, while his attorneys said he was so deluded he believed he was carrying out a rebellion.
Brian Nichols could face the death penalty for the shootings of a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy at the Fulton County Courthouse, and a federal agent later that day. Nichols, 36, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers say he couldn't tell right from wrong.
During opening statements in Nichols's oft-delayed trial, Fulton County prosecutor Kellie Hill called him a "conniving, vicious, cold-blooded, remorseless, evil, and extremely dangerous killer" who methodically sought out his targets. "He's not insane," she said. "He had a plan."
Prosecutors say 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 went on a shooting spree.
As Hill played a brief audio clip of a routine court hearing interrupted by gun shots and terrified screams, Nichols sat silently, his eyes downcast. Relatives of the victims wept and Nichols's father abruptly stalked out of the courtroom.
The defense team countered that Nichols was "swallowed whole" with a belief that he was a slave rebelling against authority. While others looked at the judge with respect, Nichols saw him as an enemy, said defense attorney Henderson Hill.
It has taken more than three years to bring the case to a trial that could last until Christmas.
Jury selection started in January 2007, but was delayed after angry legislators cut funding to the state's public defender system. The judge was later forced to step down after he was quoted saying about Nichols, "everyone in the world knows he did it."
As the case sputtered toward the starting line, authorities said, Nichols was scheming to break out of the Fulton County Jail. A special prosecutor is investigating that alleged plot but has not filed charges.
The new judge, James Bodiford, has vowed to keep the case on track and brushed off an attempt by Nichols' attorneys to delay the trial again. Defense attorneys called for a mistrial after the audio clip was played, but Bodiford overruled them.
The trial, being held a few blocks from the scene of the downtown Atlanta shootings, could last months. It took nine weeks to select a jury of eight women and four men, and more than 600 witnesses could be called.
The trial began amid high security. Police cordoned off streets outside the Atlanta Municipal Courthouse, guards with bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the hallways and visitors were siphoned through two separate security checkpoints.
Nichols is accused of fatally shooting Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau in the courthouse and sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley just outside the building. A fourth victim, federal agent David Wilhelm, was killed at a north Atlanta home he was renovating.