Originally created 11/23/05

Agency insists on keeping courthouse shooting case



ATLANTA - The fact that members of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office were brought to tears and forced to seek counseling by the courthouse rampage that left a judge and three others dead is no reason to disqualify the agency from handling the accused gunman's murder case, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Prosecutor Christopher Quinn said Brian Nichols' defense lawyers failed to prove during a two-day hearing that the office has an actual conflict of interest in prosecuting Mr. Nichols because the office is in the courthouse where the March 11 shootings started.

"We see plenty of cases that are close to us every single day," Mr. Quinn said at the conclusion of the hearing. "There is no bubble around this courthouse to prevent crime."

But defense lawyer Henderson Hill said Fulton County prosecutors were part of a larger criminal justice system that were targeted in the shootings. As a result, Mr. Hill said, the agency is in effect a victim of the crime and therefore must be prevented from prosecuting Mr. Nichols.

"The issue is not whether this prosecutor is an angel or a devil," Mr. Hill said.

He said the issue is that the extraordinary events at the time of the shootings "make it impossible from an objective point of view for this public prosecutor to carry out his duties without the significant risk that the prosecutor's stake will prevent that."

Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, on loan from DeKalb County after all Fulton County judges recused themselves from the case, took the defense motion to disqualify under advisement. He said it could take several weeks for him to rule.

It's not clear who would prosecute the case if the Fulton County District Attorney's Office is removed.

Mr. Nichols, who was being retried on rape charges at the time of the shootings, is accused of overpowering a deputy, grabbing her gun and entering the courtroom where his trial was to resume. There, police say, he fatally shot the presiding judge and a court reporter.

Mr. Nichols also is accused of killing a sheriff's deputy who chased after him outside the courthouse, and a federal agent at a home a few miles away that night. He surrendered the next day after allegedly taking a woman hostage in a suburban Atlanta apartment.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Despite the maneuverings in court, Mr. Nichols' lead lawyer, Gary Parker, said last week that he's open to resolving the case before trial to save his client's life.

Prosecutors have declined to comment on whether they've had plea discussions with Mr. Nichols' lawyers.