Atlanta courthouse gunman avoids death sentence

ATLANTA - The Atlanta courthouse gunman who killed a judge and three other people avoided a death sentence Friday when jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision on his sentence.

Superior Court Judge James Bodiford is required by state law to sentence Brian Nichols to life, and will decide in a hearing scheduled for Saturday morning whether that will include the possibility of parole. It is likely Nichols would spend the rest of his life behind bars regardless of the decision.

Prosecutors had urged jurors to sentence Nichols to death after he was convicted last month of murder and dozens of other counts in the 2005 killings. The 37-year-old was on trial for rape when he grabbed a guard's gun and fatally shot the judge, a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy at the courthouse. He fled and killed a federal agent in an Atlanta neighborhood.

Anything short of a death sentence was viewed as a failure for prosecutors. They turned down an offer by Nichols' attorneys last year for him to plead guilty to the murder charges if the state took the death penalty off the table. Both sides have spent millions of dollars since in legal fees to try the case.

Nichols sat emotionless throughout the hearing, while relatives of the victims looked downtrodden.

Lawyers from both sides refused to comment until after Saturday's sentencing decision, as did the family members of the victims. Court spokesman Don Plummer said the jurors, who also refused to comment, were "exhausted and relieved."

"They said they felt like they had been here forever," said Plummer.

Death sentences in Georgia require a unanimous jury decision. The jurors deliberated for more than 30 hours over four days before telling Bodiford around noon Thursday they were deadlocked 9-3, with nine in favor of death and three in favor of life without parole.

The judge declared the jury deadlocked late Friday after the jury reported it had "reached a stage where further deliberations will not change an opinion."

Atlanta residents have watched the trial unfold as one setback after another slowed efforts to bring Nichols to justice and tested the patience of a city seeking closure.

Nichols was accused of plotting an escape from jail with his pen-pal girlfriend. Frustrated legislators used the growing expenses as a rallying cry to slash Georgia's fledgling public defender system.

An earlier effort to bring the case to trial was postponed because of funding problems, and the case's first judge, Hilton Fuller, resigned after he was quoted in a magazine article saying of Nichols, "everyone in the world knows he did it."

The new judge, Bodiford, vowed to keep the trial on a tight schedule since the opening statements began in late September. Attorneys introduced more than 1,000 pieces of evidence and jurors have heard testimony from more than 140 witnesses throughout the trial.

After Nichols was convicted on Nov. 7, defense attorneys called a parade of Nichols' friends and family to the stand to build a case to spare their client's life. Sentencing him to death, they argued, would not improve society.

"Are we, can we be better off with mercy? The answer to that question is, 'Yes,'" said Henderson Hill, a defense attorney.

Prosecutors summoned relatives of Nichols' victims to deliver emotional testimony on how the shootings have changed their lives. And they sought to prove Nichols was an unrepentant "snake" who would plot to escape once more.

"He has not changed," prosecutor Clint Rucker told the jurors. "And if he's done it once, he'll do it again - until someone stops him. And that someone is you."

The trial was held amid high security in a municipal courthouse a few blocks from where the first shootings occurred, and police cordoned off the streets outside the building and screened visitors through two separate checkpoints. Still, Fulton County authorities said they confiscated a razor and a handgun from two people who tried to enter the courtroom last month.

The shooting rampage began when Nichols stole a deputy's gun and burst into the courtroom, where he shot and killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau. Deputy Hoyt Teasley was killed outside.

Nichols fled downtown Atlanta and evaded hundreds of police 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.

Nichols was captured the next day in suburban Gwinnett County after a woman he took hostage alerted police to his whereabouts.