Brian Gene Nichols
(born December 10, 1971) is known for his escape and killing spree
in the Fulton county courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia on March 11,
Nichols was on trial for rape when he escaped
from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a
court reporter, a Sheriff's Deputy, and later a Federal agent. A
large-scale manhunt was launched in metro-Atlanta and Nichols was
taken into custody 26 hours later. The prosecution charged him
with committing 54 crimes during the escape and he was found
guilty on all counts on November 7, 2008.
What little is known about Nichols' early life
is that he came from a middle class family. He graduated from the
Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore, Maryland in 1989. He
attended college at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in
Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for three semesters from 1989 to 1990.
While attending the college he played linebacker on their football
team. Nick Pergine, who played football with Nichols at Kutztown,
said Nichols' massive physical presence and martial-arts skills
earned him a reputation as someone to be careful around. Jake
Williams, who coached Nichols at Kutztown, compared Nichols'
physique (6'1" and 210 lbs) with that of NFL star John Mobley, who
also played at the university.
Berks County records show that Nichols had been
arrested at least three times during his short stay at the
university. In 1990, he was charged with terroristic threats,
simple assault, disorderly conduct and harassment, stemming from
an incident in a university dining hall, according to court
documents. He pleaded guilty to the two lesser charges and the
others were dropped.
The next year, Nichols was arrested twice in a
month for criminal trespassing, misdemeanor criminal mischief and
disorderly conduct. Those charges were later dropped. After his
brief stay at Kutztown, Nichols went to Newberry College from 1992
to 1993, and played football there. Athletic spokesman Ryan Gross
said that during that time Nichols was kicked off the football
team for stealing from a dorm room.
After dropping out of school, Nichols moved to
Georgia in 1995. He worked for Hewlett-Packard for eight years, as
a UNIX systems engineer. Nichols last employment was working as a
computer engineer for a logistics subsidiary of Atlanta-based
shipping giant UPS. Company spokesman Norm Black says Nichols
joined the unit in March 2004 and left in September 2004, which
was when he was arrested in the rape case. According to his
brother, Nichols earned a six-figure income and regularly attended
He was arrested after being charged with the
brutal assault of his former girlfriend of 8 years after their
break up. After discovering that she was dating Chris Rowell, a
minister from their church, Nichols forced his way into her home,
bound her with duct tape at gun point and raped her. He was
charged with rape, aggravated assault with intent to rape,
aggravated sodomy, burglary, false imprisonment and possession of
a firearm during commission of a crime.
The first case had ended in a mistrial with a
hung jury. Nichols had told people in the courthouse "I'm not
going to go lying down" when he learned that he would be retried.
Nichols’ friends warned the DA’s office he might try to escape and
one friend told prosecutors that Nichols planned to escape and
asked him to leave a credit card in the pocket of the suit jacket
he would wear to court.
Nichols mother also emailed the Fulton County
Sheriff's Office to tell them she believed her son may try to take
an officer's weapon. The retrial began the next week and the
tension heightened even further 2 days before the crime spree when
deputies escorting Nichols from the courthouse to his jail cell
noticed something in his shoes. They found two sharp "shanks,"
common jailhouse weapons fashioned out of metal which possibly
came from a door hinge.
Nichols also taunted Assistant District
Attorney Gayle Abramson and Assistant District Attorney Ash Joshi
during the retrial by saying "you're doing a much better job this
time" and he was apparently aware that his case was going poorly.
The actions prompted Judge Barnes to have a meeting the day before
the escape with counsel and he asked for extra security during
Nichols scheduled testimony that Friday since the prosecution in
the rape case had planned to call its last witness that day and
jury deliberations were upon him. Nichols would have faced life in
prison if convicted.
The shootings and escape
The State of Georgia detailed
the following events which took place on March 11, 2005:
Cynthia Hall, a 5'1″, 51-year-old sheriff's
deputy was routinely assigned to guard the 6'1″ Nichols during his
two trials under Judge Barnes. After Nichols arrived at the
courthouse on a bus, Hall escorted him from a basement detention
area to a holding cell on the 8th floor of the Fulton County
Justice Tower. Deputy Dilcie Thomas said that on the morning of
the attack, she urged Hall three times to get another deputy to go
with her upstairs to a holding cell with Nichols, where he was
going to change from jail garb before appearing in court. Hall
told Thomas, “No, I got him.” She seemed to trust him and did not
require that he wear the customary leg shackles, even though, the
day before his attack, he had been caught with door hinges hidden
in his shoes. The hinges could have been used as weapons. She
escorted Nichols to the holding area where she was to remove his
handcuffs so that he could change into civilian clothes. Hall
released one cuff and turned Nichols around to unhook the
remaining cuff, which was dangling from his wrist. Nichols
brutally attacked the deputy, pushing her into another open cell.
The video surveillance camera recorded as he overpowered the
deputy hitting her so hard in the face her feet left the ground.
He emerged from the cell with her gun belt which included her
radio and weapon magazines. Nichols retrieved her keys from the
floor and locked Deputy Hall in the cell. Nichols entered another
cell and changed into his street clothes and was seen about 4 1/2
minutes later leaving the holding cell area. He used the keys to
open a lock box where he armed himself with her Beretta .40 cal.
According to hospital sources, the deputy
sustained significant brain injury, facial fractures and a large
laceration to her forehead. After the attack, her condition was
reported as critical, but she survived. Deputy Hall's injuries
were so severe that doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital initially
believed that she had sustained a gunshot wound to the face.
Nichols then crossed over to the old courthouse
via a skybridge, where he entered the private chambers of Judge
Rowland W. Barnes. He encountered case managers Susan Christy and
Gina Clarke Thomas along with attorney David Allman. Nichols made
them all sit on the floor and held them at gunpoint while
inquiring as to where Judge Barnes was. Sgt. Grantley White, the
court bailiff, entered the chambers and was also met by an armed
Nichols. Sgt. White tried to disarm Nichols but failed. Nichols
continued to point the gun at him and stated "Don’t do nothing
Sarge. I’ve got nothing to lose".
He was held at gunpoint and
Nichols also disarmed him. Nichols forced Sgt. White to handcuff
Christy, Thomas and Allman but not before Sgt. White was able to
push an emergency button in the chambers. When Nichols heard court
security trying to contact Sgt. White he responded to dispatch on
the radio trying to dispel the alarm. That alerted other Deputies
because they heard someone using Sgt. White's radio number but
they did not recognize the voice. Nichols handcuffed Sgt. White
and forced him into a bathroom and exited the chambers.
Nichols entered courtroom 8-F from a door
behind the judge's bench. He found Judge Barnes in the courtroom
presiding over motions in a civil trial. He shot him at close
range in the back of the head. Witnesses said the judge never knew
Nichols was behind him. Nichols scanned the prosecution table
apparently in search of the Assistant District Attorneys that were
prosecuting and when he saw they were not in the court room he
lowered the gun and shot Julie Brandau, the court reporter, in the
head. Sgt. White was able to get out of the restroom and access
his radio where he put in the first radio transmission letting
responding officers know there had been "shots fired" and he also
gave a description of the armed Nichols. Nichols then walked down
from the bench and checked a side room where witnesses were held
before trial began, apparently seeking his rape victim, but she
was late that day and the room was empty.
Nichols exited the courtroom and ran into an
emergency stairwell where he was seen by Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. Sgt
Teasley had just arrived at work and was responding to the alarm
before he picked up a radio or even put on his bulletproof vest.
Sgt. Teasley pursued Nichols and the two ran down seven flights of
stairs and out of the old courthouse via an emergency exit onto
Martin Luther King Drive. When Nichols exited the building he
sounded a door alarm. He fired several gun shots in the air
creating a chaotic situation on the crowded street. He started
across Martin Luther King when the door alarm sounded again as Sgt.
Teasley exited the building. Nichols pointed one of the guns at
Teasley and fired 2 shots before the Deputy could even draw his
own gun. Sgt. Teasley fell to the ground and Nichols fled. Sgt.
Teasley was presumably unaware of Nichols's being armed or of the
incident in the courtroom because he did not have a radio. Barnes
and Brandau died at the scene and Sgt. Teasley was pronounced DOA
due to bleeding from a single gunshot wound to his abdomen at
Grady Memorial Hospital.
Nichols ran across the street into the
Underground parking garage across from the courthouse. During his
escape Nichols carjacked at least five vehicles. He first took a
2002 Mazda Tribute from Deputy Solicitor General Duane Cooper who
was entering the parking garage. Nichols reportedly walked up to
Cooper, pointed a gun at him, and said "Give it up, mother….”
Cooper exited the car and Nichols got in, backed out, and sped
away in the vehicle down Martin Luther King Blvd. Larry McCrary
who works in the Fulton County juvenile court saw Nichols fleeing
and followed him as he turned on Peachtree Street and then into a
parking garage near Underground Atlanta. McCrary said he parked
his vehicle to block the entrance and exit to the parking deck and
was able to flag down three Atlanta Police officers. He said after
the officers went inside the parking deck he saw Nichols calmly
walk out at an entrance down the street and approach a tow truck
which was at the corner of Peachtree and Wall streets
Nichols pointed a gun at the driver, Deronta
Franklin, and ordered him out. Nichols sped off in the tow truck
and traveled north briefly on Peachtree Street, then turned left
onto Walton, a one-way street, heading the wrong way and entered
the Imperial parking garage on Cone Street.
On the fourth floor of the garage, Nichols
hijacked a 2004 Mercury Sable owned by Almeta Kilgo, an Atlanta
Journal-Constitution software developer. Pointing the gun at her,
he demanded she move to the passenger seat. Kilgo froze and he
said "I’m not playing with you. Can’t you see the blood on my
hands?" He drove a short distance and then stopped and told her to
get in the trunk. She was able to escape. Nichols left in the car
and headed north on Spring Street. He drove inside the parking lot
at the Apparel Mart and confronted Sung Chung in his 1997 Isuzu
Trooper. Chung, who works at a jewelry store there said Nichols
put a gun to his head and first ordered him to get in the
passenger seat, and then to the floor board. Chung said as Nichols
was pulling out of the garage, he ordered him to give him his
jacket so he could change his appearance. It was while Nichols was
changing into the jacket that Chung saw an opportunity, unlocked
the passenger door, and jumped out before the car exited the lot.
Nichols drove to the Centennial Tower parking deck across from CNN
Center, at 9:20 a.m. and only 15 minutes after the first
carjacking, AJC reporter Don O’Briant became the final carjack
victim. As O’Briant parked his SUV in a handicapped space, Nichols,
who wasn't wearing a shirt, got out of Chung's car and asked for
directions to Lenox Square. Then he pulled a gun and said "Give me
the keys or I'll kill you". He ordered O'Briant out of his car and
told him to get into the trunk. O'Briant refused and Nichols hit
him with the gun and took O'Briant's 1987 Honda Accord. O'Briant
sustained a broken wrist and received 15 stitches above his eye.
Later that day the Honda was located on the
first level of the same parking deck from which it was reported
stolen. Investigators suspected Nichols may have abandoned the car
after spotting an easier target, taking the owner with him to
avoid being reported. Police tried to determine if there were any
missing persons or stolen vehicle reported from the area, but
their efforts were be hampered by the fact that the NCAA
Southeastern Conference basketball tournament was taking place a
few blocks away at the Georgia Dome, and thousands of out-of-town
visitors were in the area at the time. Police then recovered
security camera images taken Friday morning inside a stairwell in
the parking deck which showed a shirtless Nichols putting on a
jacket taken from O'Briant's car as he went to a lower level and
disappeared. Security camera images did not yield clues as to how
Nichols left the parking garage.
Nichols was featured on America's Most Wanted
that night and the manhunt expanded.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's
office later announced that a 911 call had been received from a
man claiming to be Nichols as the late-afternoon news conference
was being televised. Nichols threatened to kill Assistant District
Attorney Gayle Abramson and Assistant District Attorney Ash Joshi
who were prosecuting his rape case.
Sonny Perdue announced that there was a reward of
approximately $65,000 for information leading to Nichols' arrest.
The city of Atlanta was in a virtual lock down following the
shootings. Hundreds of officers in cruisers and helicopters
swarmed the area in the search of the suspect setting up
roadblocks at major intersections in downtown and midtown. More
than 100 state troopers and officers from several agencies,
including the FBI, were assisting in the search, but there were
few leads, said G.D. Stiles, a Fulton County deputy chief.
Police officers helped out even while off-duty. Law enforcement
also cast a net outside the city, and patrol cars were being
positioned on median strips along I-75 and I-85. Public schools in
the area were secured, and people inside the courthouse were not
allowed to leave until around 11:30 a.m. Friday after authorities
locked everyone inside and performed a thorough check of the
Atlanta police Chief Richard Pennington announced it was
believed that Nichols took a
MARTA train north. It was later learned that Nichols traveled
on foot from Centennial Parking garage to the
Five Points MARTA station which is less than a block from the
parking deck. Police later located a witness, Michal Taylor, who
said she was on the train with Nichols that morning. She was the
only person on a MARTA train when Nichols boarded at the Five
Points station shortly after the shootings. Taylor said Nichols
was wearing a jacket that didn't fit, no shirt and he was sweating
profusely. Taylor did not recognize Nichols because she had not
seen any of the news coverage that morning. Surveillance video was
later recovered showing Nichols walking through the station at
There was an incident at approximately 10:18 p.m. where Nichols
attacked 2 people at the Summit at Lenox (now the Heights at Lenox)
apartments at 3200 Lenox Road. The apartments were near the Lenox
MARTA station in northern Atlanta's popular Buckhead neighborhood.
Nichols tried to kidnap Iman Adan as she was walking towards her
apartment after leaving the gym. He pulled a gun on her and told
her he needed to use her apartment as a hiding place. But after
taking her to the apartment, he was surprised by the woman’s
boyfriend Shelton Warren, who was already inside the apartment.
Warren pushed Adan inside and started to wrestle with Nichols in
the hallway. The two continued to fight and Warren could hear a
hysterical Adan talking to a 911 operator. Nichols could hear Adan
calling police, Warren said. “If I heard it, he heard it,” Warren
said. Nichols struck Warren in the forehead with the gun he was
holding and then fled.
The morning of Saturday, March 12, carpenters arriving for work
found U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent David G.
Wilhelm dead in his unfinished house. It was reported that Wilhelm
had been shot and killed late Friday night at his new home at 962
Canter Road in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Canter Road is
located across the street from the Summit at Lenox apartments. At
the time of his slaying, Wilhelm had been working alone laying
tiles in the bathroom of the home, which was under construction,
said Kenneth Smith, special agent in charge of the ICE office.
Agent Wilhelm's body was found in a back bedroom and he had
been shot one time in the abdomen. It was apparent he had been
robbed because the pockets in his pants were turned inside out and
some loose change was scattered on the floor. One spent shell
casing was found next to the body. Agent Wilhelm's wallet with his
badge, his gun and his blue Chevrolet pickup truck were stolen.
At 9:50 a.m. Gwinnett County
9-1-1 received a call saying Nichols was at the Bridgewater
Apartments in Duluth, Georgia, approximately 27 miles north of
Atlanta and 15 miles north of Buckhead, in Gwinnett County.
Gwinnett Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms responded to the scene. The Gwinnett PD SWAT team quickly
surrounded the apartment. After some time, Nichols walked out of
the apartment waving a white towel and surrendered peacefully to
the SWAT team 26 hours after the rampage began. Atlanta police
chief Richard Pennington admitted surprise that Nichols
surrendered peacefully. Authorities recovered the 3 stolen
firearms and Agent Wilhelm's wallet from inside the apartment.
Agent Wilhelm's Chevrolet truck was found about two miles away
from the apartment at a nearby industrial complex.
It was later learned that around 2:00 a.m. on
March 12 Nichols approached a woman named Ashley Smith in the
parking lot of the Bridgewater Apartments. He pointed a gun at her
and said "If you do what I say, I won't kill you". He forced her
inside her apartment and reportedly told her that he was a wanted
man. Nichols forced her into the bathroom and tied her up with an
electrical cord and duct tape. He placed a hand towel over her
head while he took a shower (so that she wouldn't have to watch
him). She was sitting on a stool with the towel around her eyes
when she told him about her five-year-old daughter Paige and how
she was supposed to visit her that day. Thinking she may never see
her daughter again, she tried to reason with him.
Smith was held hostage for several hours in her
apartment, during which time Nichols requested marijuana, but
Smith told him she only had "ice" (methamphetamine). In her book
Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero,
Smith revealed that she “had been struggling with a
methamphetamine addiction when she was taken hostage,” and the
last time she used meth “was 36 hours before Nichols held a gun to
her and entered her home." Nichols wanted her to use the drug with
him, but she refused." Instead, she chose to read to him from the
Bible and Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. She tried
to convince Nichols to turn himself in by sharing with him how her
husband "had died in her arms four years earlier after being
stabbed during a brawl."
Smith also writes that she asked
Nichols “if he wanted to see the danger of drugs and lifted up her
tank top several inches to reveal a five-inch scar down the center
of her torso — the aftermath of a car wreck caused by drug-induced
psychosis. She says she let go of the steering wheel when she
heard a voice saying, ‘Let go and let God."
news of his crimes was reported on television, Nichols looked to
the ceiling and asked the Lord to forgive him. Nichols said he
needed to get the stolen truck away from the apartments so he told
Smith to follow him in her car while he drove Agent Wilhelm's
pickup truck away from the apartment complex. She asked whether
she could bring her cell phone and he said she could but she never
placed a call for help. She picked him up after he dropped off the
truck and drove back to her home with him, she said. Her decision
had a purpose: She feared that he would kill more people if she
did not do what he said. She had taken it upon herself to end the
manhunt. After they returned to her apartment Smith cooked
breakfast for Nichols. She began to ask him if she could leave to
go see her daughter and he finally agreed. When Nichols let Smith
leave her apartment that morning to visit her daughter, Smith
placed a call to 9-1-1 at 9:50 a.m.
Police initially thought that Smith may have
had a prior relationship with Nichols but later learned she was
chosen at random. "She's a remarkable lady," said Maj. Bart Hulsey,
commander of Gwinnett County's SWAT team. "She managed to make a
rapport with him and made herself a person, not just an object,
and she has an amazing capability for survival." But Smith
downplayed her efforts and later said "Throughout my time with Mr.
Nichols, I continued to rely [on] my faith in God. God has helped
me through tough times before, and he'll help me now," she told
reporters in Augusta, Georgia. "It's natural to focus on the
conclusion of any story, but my role was really very small in the
grand scheme of things. The real heroes were the judicial and law
enforcement officials who gave their lives and those who risked
their lives to bring this to an end," she said.
On March 25, 2005 Ashley Smith
received $70,000 in reward money for helping with Nichols capture.
Smith received $25,000 from the U.S. Marshals Office, $20,000 from
the FBI, $10,000 from Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's office, $5,000
from the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, $5,000 from the Georgia
Fraternal Order of Police and $5,000 from the city of Atlanta. She
previously received $2,500 from the Georgia Association of Chiefs
After his arrest, Nichols
was taken to a FBI field office in Decatur, Georgia where he was
initially held on a federal charge of possession of a firearm by a
person under indictment. Nichols was then transferred to the
Atlanta Police station where he was interviewed by Atlanta Police
Detective Vincent Velazquez. Nichols confessed on video and
detailed his crimes over the three-and-a-half-hour statement he
made to police without any lawyer present. Nichols was in custody
for about two hours when he signed a waiver and agreed to make a
videotaped statement about the courthouse shootings.
police he felt like a "soldier on a mission" exacting revenge on a
judicial system he feels is unfair to African-Americans. He feared
he was about to go to prison for a rape he claims he didn't commit
and grew weary of awaiting trial in jail and looking at a sea of
black faces. He describes how he flung the much smaller female
deputy into the concrete wall like a rag doll. After taking her
weapon instead of escaping down nearby stairs, he ran across a sky
bridge to hunt down the judge in his rape case. He said Barnes was
nice, but part of a larger system of injustice. He also killed the
judge's court reporter when she stood to check on the judge. He
said he shot the sheriff's sergeant outside the courthouse so he
could escape and he later shot the federal agent in Buckhead while
attempting to steal his car. He also admitted holding Ashley Smith
hostage in her apartment before he surrendered.
"I was actually very impressed that they didn't
shoot me when I walked out the door," Nichols told police in the
videotaped interview on March 12, 2005. “He was very up front and
very detailed and meticulous in telling me what happened,”
Velazquez said. “It was one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever
Fulton County District Attorney
Paul Howard said he saw Nichols shortly after he was taken into
custody and he appeared to be "someone who was proud of what he
had done -- that he did not show remorse."
On May 5, 2005, he was indicted by a Fulton
County grand jury on 54 counts including murder, felony murder,
kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery,
theft, carjacking, and escape from authorities.
Nichols subsequently pleaded not guilty to the charges on May 17.
Jury selection began in January 2007. Nichols' attorneys disclosed
at that time that they wanted to defend Nichols on the basis of
mental health. They did not disclose any further information.
Nichols' pre-trial hearing commenced mid-September 2007. His
defense attorneys submitted that they were not receiving enough
funding. Nichols' attorneys attributed this to the Georgia
legislature limiting state funding for defense attorneys, the
prosecution continuing to interview witnesses (which the defense
then must interview) and the complication of factoring in the
mental health defense. His trial was expected to commence October
2, 2007, but was delayed.
Fulton County District
Attorney Paul Howard announced he would seek the death penalty.
Nichols is expected to become Georgia's most expensive defendant,
with his case likely topping $5 million for the prosecution and
defense combined. The judge and Standards Council assigned Nichols
four attorneys. In addition to the costs for Nichols' defense, the
shootings have also depleted the budget for Fulton County, which
is responsible for at least $10 million in settlement fees to
Barnes' widow won a $5.2 million lawsuit and
county commissioners agreed to pay $5 million to Brandau's
daughter, Christina Scholte, who also sued.
Nichols' family reaction
Nichols' parents were not available for immediate reaction, as
they were traveling abroad in Africa where Nichols' mother works.
She is a former agent for the Internal Revenue Service and is
helping set up a tax system. Nichols' father is retired from the
restaurant business. She became aware of her son's case via a CNN
broadcast while in Tanzania. She remains in contact with Nichols'
criminal attorney Barry Hazen via email.
Nichols' brother Mark was very upset, quoting "Everyone
knows me as the brother of the person who killed those people".
"The only thing I can say is, our hearts go out
to the people in Georgia," said Reginald Smalls, Nichols' uncle.
"I really mean that ... Brian is a nice young man, as far as we
know. I don't know what happened."
Childhood friend Maxine Glover described
Nichols as a "normal young child playing with the other kids in
the block, very well mannered, had no problems with him at all".
His daughter who is in high school says that
she was shocked.
Nichols' father Gene Nichols was interviewed at
the start of the death penalty trial, said he has been surrounded
by sadness every day since the March 11, 2005, killings.
"It never leaves you," he said Friday. "I don't
think it's going to get any better. You try to go to sleep at
night, and if you can, that's the only time it leaves you." Gene
Nichols said he and his wife have also reached out to the widow of
Judge Barnes to let her know they are sorry for her loss. Gene
Nichols said his son was mentally ill the day he shot a judge,
court reporter, sheriff's sergeant and federal agent. He is
praying at least one juror decides to spare his son's life.
But he also believes a life in prison could be
"I really don't know if he's afraid of death,"
he said of his son. "I'm not. Death sometimes is better than
Courthouse security concerns
The shooting deaths of three people in a courthouse by Nichols led
to intense debate about the state of security in public buildings,
There was intense controversy about the
security practices and staffing at the courthouse which unfolded
over the next few months.
March 24, 2005 Fulton County judges order their
own security review of courthouse security.
March 27, 2005 A security audit of the Fulton
County Courthouse begins.
March 31, 2005 The union representing Fulton
County deputies recommend courthouse safety upgrades, including
improving training and equipment.
April 22, 2005 A 25-member task force begins
looking into courthouse security.
May 9, 2005 The task force announces key
recommendations to improve courthouse security, including
installing cameras in all courtrooms, using two deputies to escort
high-risk inmates, using proper restraints on inmates, and the use
of special doors in courthouse holding cells that allow deputies
to handcuff inmates before they enter the cell.
July 8, 2005 The Fulton County Courthouse
Security Commission releases its report outlining security
mistakes made on March 11, 2005. The report found that the
courthouse was understaffed by security personnel. While about 235
deputies were assigned to courthouse, the report said there should
be over 300. The report recommended that civilian bailiffs be used
for administrative duties so deputies can focus on security. It
also recommended that panic buttons be installed under courtroom
desks and that an emergency plan be in place in case of a security
breach at the courthouse.
August 8, 2005 Eight Fulton County deputies are
fired due to their actions during the courthouse shootings.
October 5, 2005 The Fulton County Sheriff's
Department internal review of the courthouse shootings is released.
An episode of American Justice titled "Murder
in the Court" deals with famous legal-related murders including
the one done by Brian Nichols and the attack on the Chicago
Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, who took the case after local
judges recused themselves due to their friendship with the
murdered judge, disqualified himself in January 2008. Fuller had
suspended the trial indefinitely because the state public
defender's office, amid a budget crunch, had cut off funding to
Nichols' lawyers. He agreed to be interviewed by CNN legal analyst
Jeffrey Toobin, who incorporated remarks made during the interview
into an article subsequently published in the January 30 issue of
The New Yorker. In it, Fuller said the "only defense" open
to Nichols' defense attorneys was an insanity defense, "because
everyone in the world knows he did it."
letter to the chief judge for Fulton County Superior Court, Judge
Fuller stated that "judicial impartiality, real and perceived, is
a critical element of the trial process," and "in light of recent
media reports, I am no longer hopeful that I can provide a trial
perceived to be fair to both the state and the accused."
Nichols' eventual trial was scheduled to take
place in July in the very courtroom where two of his murders were
committed, but Superior Court Judge James Bodiford, brought in
from nearby Cobb County, ruled that "fundamental fairness" made it
necessary to move the trial to another location in Fulton County
within 10 days.
While awaiting trial it was discovered that
Nichols is suspected of plotting a second escape attempt. District
Attorney Paul Howard's office confirmed that the Attorney General
was asked to appoint an outside prosecutor to investigate Nichols'
security at the Fulton County jail. The independent investigation
so far has discovered that Nichols allegedly got direct and
indirect help while in custody in Fulton County, not only from his
girlfriend, but also from two deputies who were reportedly paid
cash for favors, a paralegal who worked for Nichols' lawyers and
Reports said Nichols asked his long-distance
girlfriend Lisa Meneguzzo to go to a Home Depot store and make a
purchase of construction tools including a masonry saw, a circular
saw, and a jack. Nichols is said to have plotted an escape by
sawing his way out of a cement block and exiting. The reported
plot did not get past the planning stages and Nichols was moved to
DeKalb County jail in October 2006.
On September 22, 2008, roughly 3 1/2 years
after the crimes Nichols' trial began in courtroom 6B of the
Atlanta Municipal Court in front of Bodiford. At 11:12 a.m,
Nichols officially entered his plea: not guilty by reason of
insanity. Nichols’ defense team moved again to delay the trial but
“It is no surprise to the lawyers and to any
observers that I am denying the continuance,” Bodiford said.
“There has got to be a deadline… and we have reached our deadline."
Nichols' counsel, a nationally known death-penalty litigator from
Charlotte, attorney Henderson Hill, acknowledged in his opening
statement to the jury that the "terrible, almost unspeakable
things that happened on March 11" were "at Mr. Nichols' hands." He
acknowledged that Nichols also was guilty of the rape and
aggravated assault of his longtime girlfriend — the crime for
which Nichols was being tried in front of Barnes. He argued
instead that Nichols was not guilty by reason of insanity, in that
he believed he was in a war in which he was a slave rebelling
against the United States and plantation politics. Hill said that
Nichols' mental illness manifesting itself in an addiction to
video games in which he came to believe he was a real superhero.
A jury of six black women, two white women, two
black men, one white man and one Asian man are hearing the case.
They were selected after a nine-week process in which more than
240 prospective jurors were questioned. Georgia taxpayers paid the
bill for Nichols case and some estimates are that it ultimately
cost taxpayers at least $5 million to prosecute and defend Nichols.
In addition to the costs for Nichols' defense, the shootings have
also gouged the budget for Fulton County, which is on the hook for
at least $10 million in settlement fees to victims' families.
Barnes' widow won a $5.2 million lawsuit the month previous.
Finally county commissioners agreed to pay $5 million to Brandau's
daughter, Christina Scholte, who also sued.
The prosecution opening was marked by the
playing of an audiotape of the gunshots that killed Fulton County
Superior Court Judge Rowland W. Barnes and court reporter Julie
Anne Brandau, whose tape recorder, left running, preserved her
last moments of life. Played by lead prosecutor Kellie Hill, the
tape at first began with what Hill called a moment of “regular
courtroom tranquility” of a lawyer’s argument to the court—until
the first gunshot rang out. Then, the apparent confusion of
stunned civil lawyers and a second shot, four seconds later. A
woman's voice was heard saying "Don't hurt me, please don't hurt
me, help please don't hurt me." The screams of Barnes’s staff
attorney were recorded as Brandau fell across her, fatally shot
through the head.
Hill said Barnes had been shot
in the head from behind. As the lawyers in the rape case fled the
courtroom, they had to step over Barnes’ body. During opening
statements Hill called him a "conniving, vicious, cold-blooded,
remorseless, evil and extremely dangerous killer" who carefully
planned the attack and methodically sought out his targets. "He's
not insane," she said. "He had a plan. And we're going to bring
you proof of the plan."
Early in the trial the prosecution sought to
cut away at the defense plea that Nichols was not guilty by reason
of insanity. On the stand Gayle Abramson Csehy, the former Fulton
County prosecutor who tried Nichols twice in 2005 on charges he
raped his former girlfriend said she never saw any signs of mental
illness in Nichols when she met with him and his attorney during
the rape trial. She said Nichols’ attorney never mentioned his
client’s alleged mental illnesses, either. Asked what Nichols’
demeanor was like during the rape trial, she replied: “Confident.
I hate to use a cliche', but cool, calm and collected.” Far from
seeming delusional, she said, he seemed constantly alert. In the
afternoon, Defense Attorney Henderson Hill probed her again and
again until she finally lost her cool during a testy exchange.
“I’m an attorney, and I know what your defense is,” she said. “And
it is B.S."
The prosecution stated a primary witness,
Cynthia Hall, will not be able to testify at trial. She has no
memory of the last day she trusted Brian Nichols. The beating she
took on March 11, 2005, left her an invalid. The former Fulton
County sheriff’s deputy is now blind in her right eye and her
eyelid droops. Her brain damage is causing confusion, memory
problems, difficulty with speech and she has difficulty walking
unassisted according to Dr. Gerald Bilsky, the assistant director
for the brain injury unit at the Shepherd Center.
Witnesses testified during the trial that she was his guard and
had become friendly with him. She seemed to trust him and chatted
with the inmate in the manner of friends. “They seemed to be quite
familiar with each other,” former Fulton County sheriff’s deputy
Sharon Pauls said on the stand.. “They talked about the case, what
had happened in court, they talked about their children.” Nichols
seemed to have won special concessions from Hall; for example, she
did not require him to wear leg shackles as was customary.
The prosecution put forensic expert Ross Gardner on the stand to
offer his findings on the crime scene at the Wilhelm home. Nichols
had admitted to the shootings in a statement to police, but he
claimed he fired on Wilhelm only after the off-duty federal agent
pointed a gun at him. Wilhelm’s death is the only killing for
which there is no witness other than Nichols. Mr. Ross found “At
the moment of the gunshot to his abdomen, Mr. Wilhelm was either
kneeling or standing with his upper torso leaning toward the
shooter,” Gardner wrote in his report. Gardner told jurors Wilhelm
was shot at a downward angle through the stomach which severed
Wilhelm’s spine and paralyzed him. The bullet struck the thumb,
before entering . He said that the thumb injury was not possible
if Wilhelm had been gripping the pistol. Wilhelm’s Glock pistol
was also found undamaged when it was recovered. Gardner said when
Wilhelm fell he was face down, but not for long. Gardner also
contended that a trail in the drywall dust on the floor showed
Nichols turned Wilhelm over and dragged him after shooting him.
The agent’s pockets were turned inside out as if they had been
rifled when he was dying on the floor of the house.
Prosecutors concluded their 54-count case against Brian Nichols on
October 14, 2008 by showing autopsy photos of his four victims.
The prosecution took 17 days and 76 witnesses to present its
defense team began their case and will try to convince jurors
Nichols was insane and shouldn't be held accountable for his
actions. They called Nichols former girlfriend to the stand as
their first witness. She recounted how Nichols had impregnated
another woman which caused her to end their seven-year
relationship. The next day Nichols called her said he was going
kill himself because he couldn’t handle their break-up. “He told
me he was going to commit suicide, and would I take care of his
dog,”. He continued to beg for her to reconcile but about three
weeks later she began seeing an assistant pastor at their church.
She testified that Nichols was waiting for them
when they got home from dinner one night. She said there was an
angry confrontation but Nichols left. She said she went to bed,
but at 5:00 that morning, she woke up to find Nichols in the door
of her bedroom pointing a gun at her instructing her to disarm the
alarm. She testified he brought two guns, duct tape, nunchuks and
lighter fluid. "He duct-taped my ankles and wrists together and
told me if I complied, he would not harm me and would let me go —
but if I didn't, it would be a murder-suicide," she said. "He
would kill me, and then himself. He also said he would cover me
with lighter fluid — I would be burned to death." She described a
terrifying seven hours in which Nichols videotaped her naked and
raped her, but let her go, telling her if she went to police he
would get her and her family and friends — even if he went to jail
for a long time. The defense is trying to use this as a foundation
to show how Nichols mentally came apart when she broke up with him.
Attorney Barry Hazen, who represented Nichols in his rape trial,
was put on the stand and testified that Nichols insisted that the
former girlfriend still loved him and wouldn’t testify against him,
even though she brought the rape charges against him and the rape
was so violent that she was injured. Hazen recounted on the stand
the meeting that he and Judge Barnes had in chambers on March 10
about Nichols’ increasingly erratic behavior and how dangerous his
client had become. “He was a very fine man,” Hazen said,
describing the judge he had known 15 years. “He put his hand on my
shoulder and said: ‘You’re sitting closest to him [Nichols] —- be
Hazen testified that Nichols had turned down a
plea deal, which Judge Barnes had agreed to, that would had given
him 15 years in prison instead of the 25 or more years he was
likely to get if convicted —- which Hazen told Nichols he expected.
Nichols believed he was such a ladies’ man he could win over the
jury in the second trial the way that he had in the first. “A
jury’s going to love me,” Hazen testified Nichols told him. “‘I’m
a handsome man. All we need is women on the jury, and, Barry, you
don’t have to worry.” Hazen testified that the behavior “gave rise
to my thought: ‘There’s something wrong with this guy."
The defense called psychiatrist Mark Cunningham to the stand to
testify about Nichols mental condition. Cunningham said Nichols
had an emotionally distant relationship with his parents because
when he was a child they worked long hours and were seldom home.
His father routinely drank alcohol and also smoked marijuana which
led Nichols to begin abusing the same substances as a child.
Cunningham said Nichols was sexually abused by a cousin and his
older brother and that he was bullied as a child. “The stresses of
his childhood is what carries forward into adulthood,” Cunningham
He said Nichols began to show extreme beliefs
in college and he presented a college essays that Nichols wrote in
1992. In them, Nichols lays out his belief that there is an
organized and deliberate attempt by whites to eradicate the black
race, by imprisoning black men, and keeping them from having
children. One of Nichols' essays read "If violence can be a
righteous tool for the white man, then surely it can be used as a
righteous tool for the black man. If violence can be used to
murder defenseless women and children in South Africa and Vietnam,
then surely it can be used to defend the human rights of dark-skinned
people all over the world." Nichols wrote he believes blacks
should use violence to rebel arguing that if violence is right in
Vietnam and the Middle East “surely it can be used in South
Central Los Angeles.”
Cunningham said those beliefs “are the seeds of
what later grew into a delusional disorder" as he was confined in
the Fulton County jail. Nichols said the conditions paralleled
slavery: labor without pay, poor sanitation, chains; and he
compared his white judge, Rowland Barnes, to a slavemaster. He
said Nichols eventually became so delusional he thought he was at
war with the government and that he did not know right from wrong
even as he pulled the trigger.
Cunningham also read an excerpt from Nichols'
confession: "I felt as though I was a slave rebelling. I was a
slave rebelling against the government of the United States. And
as a soldier, I don't feel as though I committed any war crimes....
Slaves have a tendency to rebel. And as a result, I felt as though
it was my right as a human being, basically, to rebel as a slave.
And I felt that it was my right to declare war on the United
Conviction and Sentencing
The jurors deliberated for twelve hours over two
days before finding Nichols guilty of all 54 counts, on November
7, 2008. Before the verdict was read, Bodiford sternly warned
those in attendance that any emotional outburst would bring a
contempt of court finding, and up to 20 days in jail. Even so some
spectators burst into tears on hearing the verdicts read.
On December 13, 2008, Nichols was sentenced to multiple life
sentences with no chance of parole, and to hundreds more years on
more than 50 charges. Bodiford handed down the maximum sentence on
each charge, to run consecutively. Nichols was spared multiple
death sentences when the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision,
as required by Georgia law, recommending that punishment. Bodiford
said, "If there was any more I could give you, I would."