. However, the AJC has so many stories on this, that it might be worth registering.
Many saw tragedy waiting to happen
By Alan Judd and Rhonda Cook, AJN, 03/12/05
On Wednesday, when Brian G. Nichols returned to jail from his rape trial, sheriff’s deputies found a pair of crude weapons in his socks.
On Thursday, a judge, prosecutors and even his own lawyer sought additional security for Nichols’ trial.
Still, on Friday, the former football linebacker, his handcuffs removed, ended up alone in a room with a deputy almost 20 years his senior.
Nichols, 33, overpowered the deputy, seized her handgun, and went on a shooting spree at the Fulton County Courthouse, authorities said. Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and two other people died. And the Sheriff’s Department faced difficult questions about how it performs one of its core jobs: protecting the county’s halls of justice.
Many details about the episode remained unclear late Friday. Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman and other authorities declined to discuss whether officials had told the deputy assigned to guard Nichols, 51-year-old Cynthia Ann Hall, about the increased security concerns. They also would not describe Hall’s training or answer questions about why she carried a handgun into a locked room with an allegedly violent defendant.
Judges and lawyers have raised concerns about courthouse safety for years. Several lawyers said Friday they had long harbored worries about the practice of assigning a single armed deputy to guard a defendant in a locked holding room, because of fears that the defendant could take the officer’s weapon.
In the holding room, the prisoner is freed of handcuffs and other restraints to change from a jail jumpsuit into street clothes before entering the courtroom. Some sheriff’s departments, such as Gwinnett’s, arm deputies guarding potentially violent prisoners only with stun guns. In Cobb County, courtroom deputies carry guns with a trigger lock only the deputy can disengage.
“I always thought, if you get one strong inmate and one not-so-strong deputy, something bad could happen,” said defense lawyer Patricia Chandler, who was in a nearby courtroom at the time of the shootings.
Another defense attorney, Jack Martin, described arming courtroom security officers as “idiotic.”
“That’s just asking for trouble,” Martin said. “They don’t allow the marshals to carry guns in federal court just for that reason.”
Freeman, on the job since January, declined to discuss what went wrong Friday or larger issues concerning courthouse security.
“This is a very intense and sensitive investigation,” Freeman said at a news conference Friday evening, “and we don’t want to release any information that may jeopardize the court proceedings in the future of this case.”
In a separate interview, when asked whether his department had increased security for Nichols’ trial, as the judge requested, he said: “If they asked for it, we have given it to them… . Those questions I can’t answer. We’re just here doing our jobs.”
Only days ago, Freeman himself suggested problems in courthouse security. He told Superior Court judges in a memo that the number of inmates being brought in for trial was exceeding the capacity of holding cells.
The judges took the warning seriously, said Judge Stephanie Manis.
“The new sheriff was aware of the stress the numbers put on his deputies,” Manis said. “We planned on all working with the sheriff in making sure our load was better spread out.”
District Attorney Paul Howard said he didn’t know whether the Sheriff’s Department followed its policies for courthouse security. But he defended the agency, noting that deputies assigned to the courthouse guard 450 defendants a day.
“They have done a good job,” Howard said. “No matter your training, your equipment, your policies, there’s always room for human error.”
However, he said: “We deal with a different kind of defendant. Some of the defendants are very determined. They are not sitting there waiting for somebody to put them in prison.”
Nichols was a particularly dangerous defendant, officials said Friday. He had been accused of breaking into his former girlfriend’s home, brandishing a loaded machine gun, binding her with duct tape and repeatedly raping her for two days.
In his first trial, which ended two weeks ago with jurors unable to reach a verdict, Nichols frequently commented on the proceedings in a “cocky” manner, said Gayle Abramson, the prosecutor handling his case.
On Wednesday, Abramson said, when deputies took Nichols from the courthouse to the Fulton County Jail, they discovered two metal “shanks”—a term commonly used for homemade knives—in his socks. Nichols claimed the devices were for arch support, but deputies filed a report and notified Judge Barnes.
The next morning, Abramson said, Barnes called prosecutors and Nichols’ lawyer into his chambers to discuss the incident. With the lawyers’ agreement, Abramson said, Barnes asked the Sheriff’s Department for extra security, and two additional deputies were assigned to his courtroom.
Barry Hazen, Nichols’ lawyer, said Barnes showed the lawyers photos of the shanks. “He thought Nichols was a dangerous character,” Hazen said.
But Hazen and Abramson said no one requested that Nichols be shackled in the courtroom. Defendants generally are unrestrained in court to avoid prejudicing jurors.
“It wasn’t to that level yet,” Abramson said.
“We talked about mostly, were he to be convicted, would we get a violent response?” Hazen said. “If the verdict came in—and it was anything other than a hung jury—they would bring in a number of deputies and he would have to be surrounded by deputies and everybody else would have to be 20 feet away.”
Hazen added: “I think they blew it on security. Here’s a guy who they think is a problem or potentially is a problem and there is this notion we’re going to beef up security, and it just didn’t happen… . You’ve got to take precautions. I didn’t see anybody doing anything about it.”
In 2003, two Superior Court judges complained about lax security after confrontations with people who got into private areas of the courthouse. Sheriff Jackie Barrett said she had reduced security because of budget cuts. Barrett declined to comment Friday.
Karen Handel, chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission, wouldn’t comment on whether officials would review safety procedures at the courthouse.
Other officials said the shootings underscore the need for better security.
“Court security has always been a problem,” Judge Manis said, noting that a defendant in her court once grabbed a deputy’s gun in a holding room. “I do not believe you will find this is the only incident.”