Saturday, November 08, 2008

Death penalty needed here.........

By RHONDA COOK
The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionSunday, September 21, 2008

The destruction caused by the Brian Nichols case has gone beyond the four people he killed, beyond the five he carjacked. It’s also gone beyond the people he assaulted in the hours between his unprecedented escaped from the Fulton County Courthouse on a windy Friday morning and his surrender 26 hours later at a Duluth apartment complex.The cost has been more than any other in the state and some estimates are that it will ultimately cost taxpayers at least $5 million to prosecute and defend Brian Nichols.Those 26 hours three-and-half years ago may have been the death-knell of Georgia’s then-new system that had been created to eliminate the inequities of a hodge-podge of indigent defense systems.“This is a tragic case that comes along once every 50 years,” said Stephen Bright, who teaches law at Georgetown and Yale Universities.“It’s too bad it couldn’t be handled in a way that didn’t result in consequences for the judiciary and the representation of poor people,” said Bright, a veteran death penalty defense attorney.The financial — and political — drain of the case has crippled, and maybe destroyed the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, Mears and Bright said.When he was head of the council, Mears recalls, he had “several heated discussions” over state funding with legislators who “want to use the Nichols case to destroy the indigent defense system because of how much it’s costing and how much we should have not been paying for this defense.“This case may result in the end of the indigent defense system,” Mears. “There has been a lot of collateral damage as a result of this case, starting with the [judicial] system itself.”The Nichols case has become the example both sides point to when arguing the shortcomings of the death penalty system.The staggering expense of the Nichols case has gone beyond $13 million, including two $5 million settlements paid to the families of those killed at the courthouse.Georgia’s taxpayers are paying to defend Nichols, to prosecute him, to protect him and to house him.At the same time, the case has consumed the attention of the public, a courthouse, the judiciary and a prosecutor’s office. Because of the multiple on-and-off trial start dates and the media attention, some outside the system believe the case has taken too long to come to trial even though there have been death penalty cases that have taken longer.Trial finally begins MondayThree years, six months, and 10 days after accused rapist Brian Nichols, 36, escaped from the Fulton County Courthouse on March 11, 2005 — leaving blood in his path and briefly terrorizing a city — he is going on trial before a jury dominated by women.Is Nichols not guilty by reason of insanity — as he claims — for the series of crimes referred to as “the courthouse shootings?” Or is he guilty of multiple murders and should he die for killing Judge Rowland Barnes, court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau, Fulton deputy Hoyt Keith Teasley and agent David Wilhelm of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.Hopefully, by Christmas, there will be a verdict.But many agree the effects will linger long after the verdict.“It’s an extraordinary case because of the number of twists and turns it has in it,” said law professor Michael Mears, who previously headed the Public Defender Standards Council, the state agency charged with representing capital defendants like Nichols.The cost has been more than any other in the state and some estimates are that it will ultimately cost taxpayers at least $5 million to prosecute and defend Nichols.Already Fulton County has spent almost $954,000. The county also cancelled a $376,000 debt the city of Atlanta owed for court services in exchange for use of the entire sixth floor of the Municipal Court.Barnes’ widow recently won a $5.1 million lawsuit against Fulton County for her husband’s death in his courtroom that fateful day. Brandau’s daughter was awarded a $5.2 million settlement a few days ago.Other lawsuits are pending.And by the time the trial is over, Fulton County will have spent at least another $118,534 just for juror expenses and more than $151,000 for overtime for deputies assigned to the trial. Fulton is expecting spend even more because the county is now picking up the expense of one of Nichols’ four attorneys and there are several months of billable hours not yet worked.At one County Commission meeting in July, the county manager warned another $1.8 million may be needed.Meanwhile, taxpayers also are spending millions to both to prosecute and defend Nichols — costs that are harder to tally.The prosecution costs are spread out in the budgets of several local, state and federal agencies, including the expense of lawyers and law enforcement officers, who are also handling other cases.The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council had paid six Nichols’ lawyers — four at first and now only two — at least $1.5 million by the first of this year.How much it has cost since the first of this year is not known because both judges in the case — the previous judge, Hilton Fuller ,and now-presiding Judge James Bodiford — have ordered the council not to discuss the case.“It’s cost much more than I could ever imagine,” Mears said.Indigent defense system damagedThe statewide indigent defense system had been in place little more than two months when Nichols escaped the courthouse where he was on trial on charges of raping a former girlfriend.“Nichols was the first major capital case coming out of the chute,” said Gary Parker, who was the previous lead defense attorney until he resigned more than a year ago for health reasons. “The level of resources … hasn’t been spent anywhere.”Bright said the damage to the state’s indigent defense system will be lasting.“The legal system does not work at its best when caught up in the passions of the moment,” Bright said. “Once you accentuate those passions, the more people’s careers get caught up, the worse it gets. A lot of times when we look back on it several years later, those are not the legal system’s finest hours. The independence of the judiciary may be one of the greatest casualties of the case, Bright said.“It has been a tremendous blow to the independence of the judiciary in Georgia,” Bright said. “The rule of law is based on the notion that cases are tried in accordance with the law and not the passions of the moment and the legislature.”Bright said some elected officials blamed Fuller, the first judge on the case who resigned. Bright said it was “shear demagoguery and that hurt the legal system. The idea that a judge is supposed to play to the crowd is totally antithetical to our notions of justice.”

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