Jury Weighs Death Penalty for Atlanta Courthouse Shooter

Jurors began deliberating Tuesday on whether to send Brian Nichols to death row or prison for life for fatally shooting a judge and three other people in a rampage that started in a downtown courthouse.

The same jury last month found Nichols guilty of murder and dozens of other charges for killing the judge, a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy at the courthouse and a federal agent in an Atlanta neighborhood on March 11, 2005.

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The jury began deliberating at 9:45 a.m. Nichols, 36, could be sentenced to death or to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Nichols had confessed to the killings but claimed he was legally insane and that he believed he was a slave rebelling against his masters. Prosecutors argued that he concocted the delusions to avoid the death penalty.

In closing arguments Monday, prosecutors asked the jury for a death sentence while defense lawyers urged jurors to avoid vengeance.

"That's the kind of vengeful, recriminative response that begets more violence," said defense attorney Henderson Hill.

Prosecutor Clint Rucker called Nichols an "extremely dangerous" killer who would try to escape again if sent to prison for life.

"With your help, brick-by-brick, we will rebuild the wall of justice that has been torn down by this defendant," Rucker said.

Nichols was being escorted to his trial for rape 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 at a house the agent was renovating.

Nichols was captured the next day in suburban Gwinnett County 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.