ATLANTA – A rape defendant accused in a deadly courthouse rampage was able to enter the chambers of the judge slain in the attack and hold the occupants hostage because the door was unlocked and a buzzer entry system was not activated, a sheriff's report says.
After handcuffing a lawyer, deputy and an unspecified number of other people, suspect Brian Nichols (search) entered the courtroom where his trial was to resume later in the day and killed Judge Rowland Barnes (search) and his court reporter, the report says.
"We understand there was a practice of the door being left open," Michael Cooke, chief deputy of the Fulton County Sheriff's Department, said at a news conference.
The report on the March 11 attack at a downtown courthouse also says that it took a court officer 21 minutes to reach a deputy whom Nichols allegedly overpowered and stole her gun in order to start the killing spree. Outside the courthouse, a sheriff's deputy was killed and a federal agent was killed elsewhere.
Despite the report, Cooke said, "There was no lapse in response time. Period."
Sections of the report were released Thursday following a judge's order. The 15 pages of the report that were released include a timeline of the attack, an incident narrative and an executive summary. Witness statements, which make up the bulk of the report, remained sealed. The sections of the report released do not make recommendations for improving security at the Fulton County Courthouse.
The report says that once in the judge's chambers, Nichols took several staff members and a sheriff's deputy hostage and handcuffed them for an unknown amount of time. At one point, the deputy faked a heart attack so he could fall to the floor in order to activate a distress alarm. For the next several minutes, the report says, a colleague tried in vain to reach that deputy on his portable radio. Nichols had apparently taken the radio, the report says.
The sheriff's department, responsible for security at the courthouse, has been widely criticized for its handling of Nichols, who was unshackled at the time of the attack and had previously been caught with homemade knives hidden in his shoes.
The report says that after the weapons were found on March 9, two days before the attack, Nichols told officials that he was "using the contraband for arch support in his shoes" and wrote a statement to that effect.
In response, the jail staff issued an incident report and forwarded it through the chain of command, but "took no further action" because "Nichols had posed no serious threat and had exhibited no other signs which might lead to trouble."
The sheriff's report says that the following day, the department notified the court about the weapons being found. The report says that the judge requested extra security be present in the courtroom when the verdict in the rape trial was issued, which the report says was not expected for two or three more days. That differs, however, from previous accounts by the district attorney who has said that extra deputies were requested for the remainder of the trial.
A major unresolved question since the attack has been why only one person was guarding Nichols at the time. Cooke on Thursday said the sheriff's department policy is to allow one deputy to escort up to four inmates at once. He said that policy was followed and that Deputy Cynthia Hall (search), who was overpowered, had escorted Nichols safely on other occasions.
At a hearing earlier Thursday regarding release of the report, Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller said, "The presumption in my mind is the court should not intervene in this unless there is a specific reason to do so,"
Earlier this week, Fuller had issued an order sealing the report until Thursday's hearing, saying he wanted to balance the public's right to know with Nichols' right to a fair trial.
Another hearing will be held Friday to discuss defense objections to releasing the remainder of the report. Media lawyers will be allowed to address the court then.
Defense lawyer Chris Adams said release of the witness statements could jeopardize Nichols' right to a fair trial. He noted that some of the material includes alleged statements made by Nichols.
The prosecutor, Michele T. McCutcheon, did not object to the report being released in its entirety.
Nichols, who is being held without bail, has not been charged in the shootings. Nichols waived his right to be in court Thursday. His parents and brother, seated in a back row of the courtroom, left without speaking to reporters.