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Repercussions from Georgia Courthouse Escape, Shootings Continue

Inadequate security, which had existed for years at Georgia's Fulton County Courthouse, as well as lapses by Sheriff's deputies, are being blamed for the deadly March 11, 2005 escape of Brian Nichols. PLN has previously reported on the many problems afflicting the Fulton County Jail. Nichols' violent breakout that left a judge, court stenographer, Sheriffs deputy and federal agent dead is merely the latest in a long story of mismanagement, corruption, brutality and incompetence.

Several weeks prior to Nichols' escape, his mother had warned that he might grab a gun if he thought he would be found guilty in his trial on rape and other felony charges. And just two days before his deadly rampage, Nichols had smuggled homemade shanks into the courthouse, only to be caught on his way back to jail. As a result, Lt. Gary Reid agreed to provide extra security in Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes' courtroom. On the morning of March 11, however, Reid called in sick so he could visit his son's school, and Deputy Cynthia Hall, who had 17 years experience with the Sheriff's office, took Nichols from the courthouse basement to an eighth floor holding cell. Once there, she removed Nichols' handcuffs to allow him to change into street clothes for his court appearance. Nichols attacked Hall, striking her on the head and knocking her unconscious. He then used Hall's key to obtain her gun from a lockbox.

Despite the cell door not having an opening for prisoners to stick their hands through to remove handcuffs, Fulton County Sheriff's policy was to remove handcuffs in the open. It was also the Sheriff's policy to send a single deputy to escort a prisoner to court. Hall, 51 years old and standing 5'4", was no match for Nichols, 33, a former college football linebacker who had studied martial arts. Hall's only backup, two employees assigned to monitor surveillance cameras from a central control room, didn't see the attack. Capt. Chelsea Lee had sent one of them to fetch her breakfast at the time.

After disabling Deputy Hall, Nichols proceeded to Judge Barnes' chambers. Once there he disarmed and handcuffed Barnes' bailiff, Sgt. Grantley White, and held others at gunpoint. Upon entering the courtroom, Nichols fatally shot Judge Barnes; while people fled, he then shot court reporter Julie Ann Brandau in the head, killing her.

As he escaped the courthouse, Nichols was confronted by Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, whom he shot multiple times and mortally wounded. Nichols next carjacked several vehicles, including one belonging to a local reporter, left the area, and eventually killed David Wilhelm, an off-duty Special Agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. A construction worker found Wilhelm's body the next day; Nichols had fled with Wilhelm's badge, gun and blue Chevrolet truck.

Early the next morning Nichols forced his way into an apartment occupied by Ashley Smith, a widowed single mother. Over the next seven hours Smith talked to Nichols about God and gained his trust. After being allowed to leave the apartment to check on her daughter, Smith called 911. Nichols surrendered without resistance.

As a side note to Nichols' headline-grabbing escape, a great deal of media attention was focused on Smith, who reportedly read to Nichols from the bestselling evangelical self-help book, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Pastor Rick Warren. She was lauded as a heroine for bringing a peaceful end to Nichols' deadly rampage. Not so much attention was focused on the reward money that Smith received for assisting in Nichols' capture, some $70,000, nor on her later admission that she provided Nichols with crystal meth, though she denied using any of the drug herself.

Much finger-pointing has occurred in the aftermath of Nichols' killing spree. A group of Fulton County deputies has called for Sheriff Myron Freemen to resign or that he be recalled. Freemen did not take office until January 2005, just two months before Nichols' escape; it appears, however, that an entrenched courthouse culture did not always take safety issues seriously long before Freemen took office. PLN has previously reported on the extensive problems at the Fulton County Sheriffs Department and jail [See: PLN, March 2005].

In August 2005, following a report by the Fulton County Courthouse Security Commission, eight Sheriff's employees were fired, two were suspended without pay, and three others received written reprimands or counseling. Although Sheriff Freemen initially refused to identify them by name, he said they included two majors, a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant, two deputies, and a jail guard. Several were accused of lying during the investigation into the escape regarding their actions and whereabouts. "The employees fired for lying slowed us down considerably. If we had just had the truth in the beginning, we could have cut a good 3½ weeks off our investigative time," said Dekalb Sheriff Thomas Brown, who led an independent investigation into Nichols' escape.

The investigators who questioned the deputies, however, appeared to help them with their answers. In March, Joel Middlebrooks, a deputy who split his time between the control room and courtroom, told investigators he "started making [his] way toward the courtroom elevators after [he] heard a radio call for help." An investigator, however, coaxed the deputy by asking, "You sprinted, is that what your testimony was?" 

One of the fired Sheriff's employees, Sgt. Jerome Dowdell, was cited for having a personal relationship with Brian Nichols and his mother, Claritha Nichols. All three were members of the same church.

Sgt. Charles Rambo, a union official with the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents employees at the Sheriff's office, contends that individual staff members shouldnt take the blame. Instead, he contends that it was the irresponsible and incompetent way this department was run for years that caused a lot of the problems. Rambo, who had previously vied with Freemen for the Sheriff's position, stated that the employees subjected to discipline were "being shafted." Indeed, security lapses at the Fulton County courthouse had been evident for years.

In 2003 the U.S. Marshals Service had conducted an audit and recommended that emergency exits be fitted with special panic bars, which would keep the doors locked for 15 seconds and sound an alarm to help deputies capture escaping prisoners. The Marshals also recommended building new holding cells for some courtrooms, discontinuing the practice of escorting prisoners through public areas, and increasing safety and security training. None of these suggestions were implemented.

"Things have been going on in that courthouse this way for years and everybody just took it for granted," said the U.S. Marshal in Atlanta, Richard Mecum, chairman of a task force investigating the shootings and courthouse security.

Absenteeism was also a major problem, with deputies taking sick days to run personal errands or take three-day weekends. Several days following Nichols' escape, Sheriff Freemen transferred 40 deputies to the court complex, ordered that deputies be armed while escorting prisoners, and required at least two deputies to bring prisoners to court. He also reduced the number of prisoners taken to court from 400 to 225 per day, although that quota is still regularly exceeded.

Further, a policy change implemented in January 2005 may have contributed to Nichols' successful escape. Deputies at the courthouse who issued security alerts were instructed to verify the alert before requesting assistance, rather than seek an immediate response. During Nichols' escape the deputy in the courthouse control room tried four times to obtain verification before requesting help. Ironically, it was Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, who was shot and killed by Nichols, who had ordered the policy change over the protests of one of his subordinates, Paul Tamer. Tamer, the deputy in the control room at the time of Nichols' escape, dutifully followed Teasley's orders and delayed issuing an alert. The Sheriff's office has since reverted to requiring an immediate response to security alerts at the courthouse.

The escape and its aftermath have put a scare into courthouse staff. By May 24, 2005, seventeen prosecutors and investigators had decided to leave the District Attorney's office, with at least three citing the shootings as a factor.

Meanwhile, judges at the Fulton County Courthouse are frustrated that little has changed in the way of security. Judge T. Jackson Bedford, Jr. walked an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter from a first-floor public hallway into the restricted judge's chambers area. After passing a desk where an unarmed civilian security officer sat, Bedford approached Courtroom 1C from the back. The door was unsecured.

"Look at the first floor," the frustrated judge said as he opened the door and looked over his shoulders to the area he had just passed through. "It's wide open."

Sheriff's officials say progress to tighten security is being made. However, two years before Nichols' deadly escape, Dennis Scheib, a former Sheriff's deputy working as a defense attorney, had sharply criticized security at the courthouse, noting lapses almost identical to those that Nichols' exploited when making his escape.

The widow of Judge Rowland Barnes, who was presiding over Nichols' rape trial and was Nichols' first murder victim, has filed a lawsuit that singles out the Sheriff's employees who failed to protect her husband, but does not name the county as a defendant. "Our claims are against individuals not the government," said Barnes' attorney, Tommy Malone. "There were policies in place for preventing this type of tragedy from happening and they were not followed, and thats why this tragedy occurred." Additional lawsuits have been filed by the survivors of the three other victims killed by Nichols, and by two case managers for Judge Barnes--Susan Christy and Gina Clarke--who are seeking damages for mental anguish from the ordeal.

In November 2005, Nichols was found to be planning another breakout. This time a routine shakedown revealed a letter to a prisoner in an adjoining cell that made reference to an escape plan, including overpowering deputies and releasing other prisoners.

The prisoner to whom Nichols was writing was identified as Stephen Marshall, 34, who is awaiting trial on charges in the 2004 fatal shooting of a 3-year-old. Since finding the letters, which the Sheriff's office has refused to release to the press, SWAT members were assigned to guard Nichols at the Fulton County Jail. Nichols is facing the death penalty in a 54-count indictment resulting from his March 2005 escape.

Sources: Atlanta-Journal Constitution; New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Austin American-Statesman; Seattle Times;

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