Judge sentences courthouse shooter to life

Sunday, December 14, 2008

ATLANTA -- A judge on Saturday sentenced the man who killed four people in a courthouse escape to multiple life sentences with no chance of parole after a deadlocked jury failed to return a death sentence.

Brian Nichols, 37, was found guilty last month of murder and dozens of other counts for the March 2005 rampage that started in a downtown courthouse, led to an Atlanta neighborhood and ended with his capture the next day in a suburban county. He will likely die in prison after Superior Court Judge James Bodiford handed down the maximum sentence on each charge.

"If there was any more I could give you, I would," the judge said.

Nichols was spared capital punishment when the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision to condemn him to death row for the murders of a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent.

After four days and more than 30 hours of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked at 9-3, with nine in favor of the death penalty and three voting for life without parole.

Nichols, who argued he was mentally insane when he carried out the killings, spoke for the first time in court on Saturday.

"I just wanted to say that I know that the things I've done caused a lot of pain and I'm sorry," he said. "And I just wanted to say that I will not bring dishonor to the decision to spare my life. That's it."

The sentence caps more than three years of efforts to bring Nichols to justice since his arrest that were repeatedly bogged down by legal complications, frustrating victims' relatives and angering state legislators over the costs. The rampage prompted attorneys and judges to question their safety and law enforcement around the state to re-examine courthouse security measures.

The deadlocked jury was a setback for prosecutors, who turned down an offer from Nichols' attorneys to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. But District Attorney Paul Howard said he has spoken with U.S. attorneys about a possible death penalty trial against Nichols in federal court for the killing of the off-duty federal agent.

Howard also said Georgia prosecutors need more leeway to strike jurors who are reluctant to vote for the death penalty. He said jurors have told him that the three holdouts refused to deliberate and one even wore headphones during the closed-door discussions this week.

"The community has spoken," he said. "Even though we are puzzled and terribly disappointed by the decision, we must accept the conclusion provided by our community."

In a tearful post-trial news conference, the families of the victims thanked the prosecutors for going through with the trial, as painful as it was.

"I believe Brian Nichols did not win. In his own words, he said it's not his DNA to stay in jail," said Christina Greenway, daughter of slain court reporter Julie Ann Brandau. "Which is what he has to look forward to the rest of his life. I'm not disappointed and I have no regrets."

Nichols was being escorted to his trial for rape when he beat a deputy guarding him and stole her gun. He burst into the courtroom and shot and killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, Brandau and Deputy Hoyt Teasley.

He fled downtown Atlanta and managed to evade hundreds of police officers searching for him overnight. In Atlanta's posh Buckhead neighborhood, he shot and killed federal agent David Wilhelm at a house the agent was renovating.

The judge, after sentencing Nichols to the slew of charges, urged the victims' of Nichols' crimes to try their best to regroup.

"We've learned a lot from this horrible tragedy, and as horrible as it was, we need to learn from this and make sure it never happens again," said Bodiford.

The judge offered advice for the prison guards who will handle Nichols: "Do not trust Mr. Nichols ever again. Ever again. Because he cannot be trusted."

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