Atlanta courthouse shooting trial begins

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ATLANTA — The man accused of a courthouse shooting rampage that left four people dead pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity Thursday as his trial began amid high security, more than three years after prosecutors say he confessed in the killings.

Defense attorney Henderson Hill entered the plea for Brian Nichols a day after filing a motion claiming that Nichols was insane and couldn't tell "right from wrong" during the killings.

Even Nichols' defense team has conceded he killed a judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy at the county courthouse in downtown Atlanta on March 11, 2005, and a federal agent later that day.

But the trial has faced a series of complications that have alternately astonished and outraged a community trying to close the books on the shootings that turned Fulton County's seat of justice into a crime scene.

Lawmakers outraged at a state-funded defense bill of at least $1.8 million have threatened to cut more funding. Nichols has been accused of plotting an escape. Defense attorneys claim a prosecutor committed crimes of her own. And the district attorney sued the presiding judge, who later stepped down.

New Judge James Bodiford has vowed to keep the case on track, and he rebuffed an attempt by Nichols' attorneys Thursday to delay the case further.

"One thing I must do in this case is justice," Bodiford said. "But secondly I must be efficient, if I can."

Attorneys began screening the first batch of dozens of potential jurors Thursday in hopes of finding a pool of 100 qualified jurors. From there, 18 jurors will be selected — 12 jurors and six alternates.

Legal experts say finding a fair jury to decide one of the most notorious cases in modern Atlanta history could be the trickiest task, and the first pool seemed to reinforce the dilemma. Eleven of the 16 residents raised their hands when asked if they've already formed an opinion about the case.

The jurors watched a 37-minute video describing the 54 counts against Nichols, who sat silently with his eyes downcast as it was played. About a dozen deputies and security officers in khaki vests roamed the courtroom, and each visitor was first screened by a deputy waving a metal detector.

The trial could last for months. As many as 600 witnesses could be called, and written evidence runs to the thousands of pages.

Prosecutors say Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom in the Fulton County Courthouse when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree.

Nichols, who was on trial on a rape charge, is accused of shooting Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau in the courthouse and sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley outside the courthouse. A fourth victim, federal agent David Wilhelm, was killed at a north Atlanta home he was renovating later in the day.

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