ATLANTA – Prosecutors urged a jury Monday to restore a shaken justice system by sentencing a gunman to death for killing a judge and three others after grabbing a guard's weapon to escape his own rape trial.
The jury was slated to begin deliberating Tuesday on whether to sentence Brian Nichols, 36, to death or to life in prison after convicting him last month of murder and dozens of other counts in the 2005 rampage that started at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta.
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In closing arguments Monday, prosecutor Clint Rucker told the jury the killings of a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent smashed the "brick wall" that is the city's justice system.
"Brick by brick, that wall can be rebuilt so that this defendant will receive a very clear message about his actions," Rucker said.
Defense attorneys were expected to deliver their closing arguments Monday afternoon. They have argued that Nichols was legally insane when he carried out the killings, and that he was gripped by a delusional compulsion that he was a slave rebelling against his masters.
Rucker called Nichols "extremely dangerous" and warned he would try to escape again if sent to prison for life.
"If you give him life and not death, he will have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because he has not finished yet. He did it once, and he will do it again," said Rucker.
Nichols was being escorted to a courtroom in downtown Atlanta where he was being tried for rape on March 11, 2005, when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree. He killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau and Deputy Hoyt Teasley.
He fled downtown Atlanta and managed to evade hundreds of police officers searching for him overnight. In Atlanta's posh Buckhead neighborhood, he shot and killed federal agent David Wilhelm outside a house the agent was renovating.
Nichols was captured the next day after a woman he took hostage, Ashley Smith Robinson, alerted police to his whereabouts. Smith Robinson was credited with bringing a peaceful ending to the rampage by appealing to Nichols' religious beliefs and giving him illegal drugs.
Since Nichols was arrested three years ago, his case has been beset by complications that have outraged a community seeking to recover from the notorious shootings.
Nichols had been accused of plotting an escape from jail with his pen-pal girlfriend. Lawmakers furious at a defense bill that tops $1.8 million have used the trial as a rallying cry to cut funding to Georgia's fledgling public defender system. And the district attorney sued the presiding judge, Hilton Fuller, who later stepped down after he was quoted as saying of Nichols, "everyone in the world knows he did it."
The new judge, James Bodiford, has kept the trial on a tight schedule. It has been held amid high security in a municipal courthouse a few blocks from the scene of the shootings.