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A courthouse rat

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POSTED: October 10, 2007 5:07 a.m.

I am not a lawyer. I don’t even look like one on TV. But I smell a courthouse rat.

The Brian Nichols defense team is trying to intimidate Judge Hilton Fuller’s court and walk away with a sack of gold for defending an open-and-shut murder case.

One could make a case that the wily defense lawyers hope to use their expense vouchers and time sheets to force a gone-broke state to cry uncle, forgo a trial and let Nichols off with a life sentence for a series of mind-boggling slayings.

The public defenders say they have already spent $1.8 million and are running out of funds. They say they will need at least $2.4 million to provide Nichols an adequate defense. According to the Associated Press, the Nichols defense wants six times what the average death penalty defense costs in Georgia through the first appeal following conviction.

As you may remember, the Fulton County prosecution alleges that on March 11, 2005, Brian Gene Nichols, who was being taken to court on a rape charge, broke loose in the courthouse and shot and killed Judge Rowland W. Barnes, court reporter Julie Brandau and deputy sheriff Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. He also is suspected of killing U.S. Customs Agent David Wilhelm on March 12.

The murders made international headlines. Shortly after the killing spree, Nichols, who is black, was said by the media to have thought of himself as a warrior for racial justice. A Fulton grand jury indicted him on May 5, 2005, on 54 counts, including murder, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault on a police officer, battery, theft, carjacking and escape from authorities.

The Nichols matter is hardly a Sherlock Holmes whodunit. The defendant launched his murderous assault in a building filled with lawmen and court officials. He extended his mayhem down a crowded street, across town and into Gwinnett County. The Gwinnett SWAT squad captured Nichols after a woman he took hostage convinced him to give up.

The prosecution is said to have a witness list with 400 names on it. As one would expect, Fulton DA Paul Howard has said he will ask for the death penalty.

If we must have a death-penalty law in this state, the Nichols indictment fits the bill for lethal injection. Lives have been destroyed, families shattered and justice insulted in an apparently premeditated wanton rampage.

So here we are nearly 30 months after the tragedy, facing $2 million in legal fees and another extended trial delay.

The state’s legal-defense kitty has run dry. The lawyers say they can’t afford to keep compiling defense evidence for nothing; they must have multibucks to go on with a complete defense.

A precedent could be set. Future indigent murder defendants might one day thwart the executioner simply by breaking the state’s indigent-defense bank and then copping a plea before a destitute court.

Something else is going on here too. Suppose Judge Fuller finally says, "Enough is enough. Proceed with the trial."

Look out, Atlanta and the rest of the South. I can see the placards now: "No Justice for Brian," "Crackers Deny Justice for Crusader" and "Send Dollars to Save Nichols."

Protest marchers will descend from everywhere. The broadcast and cable networks will go nuts. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will appear. O.J. may even show up.

The recent demonstrations in Jena, La., will seem little more than a tiny warm-up for a raucous "we are victims" rally in a major Southern city. The nation and the world will be watching.

Racial tensions already are in the air. A new generation of activists looks longingly back at the 1960s and probes for new causes. In our own backyard, some observers were shocked at the numbers of prominent people and organizations that sprung to the defense of serial-dog-killer Michael Vick. At one point, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to "honor" the disgraced Falcons quarterback. An NAACP chapter came charging to his defense. Saner voices finally prevailed. Vick was not a sympathetic victim, especially to dog owners.

The Nichols case may have just the ingredients that the Foot Soldiers for Justice (2007 Edition) are seeking for another prolonged upheaval. Their cause, simply stated, will be this: The State of Georgia does not want to pay for an adequate defense of a penniless black murder defendant. Not fair, you say. What has fairness to do with this?

An unintended consequence of the Nichols affair: The state of Georgia could abandon any effort to provide a legal defense fund for indigent defendants.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net.

 

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