ATLANTA – A judge on Saturday sentenced the man who killed four people in a brazen courthouse escape to several terms of life in prison without parole on more than fifty charges.
Superior Court Judge James Bodiford was required by law to sentence Brian Nichols to life in prison with or without chance of parole after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a death sentence.
On Saturday, Bodiford gave Nichols, 37, consecutive maximum sentences on every charge, meaning he will likely die in prison.
"If there was any more I could give you, I would," Bodiford said. "I intended to and did give the maximum sentence. It's a large number of years."
Among the sentences were four of life without parole, plus hundreds of additional years behind bars.
"Life with the possibility of parole is not an appropriate sentence," Bodiford said in explaining his decision. "It's not in the ballpark."
Nichols was on trial for rape in 2005 when he grabbed a guard's gun and fatally shot the judge, a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy in the courthouse. He fled and killed a federal agent in an Atlanta neighborhood.
Nichols, who did not take the stand in his own defense, spoke in court for the first time on Saturday.
"I just wanted to say that I know that the things I've done caused a lot of pain and I'm sorry," he said. "And I just wanted to say that I will not bring dishonor to the decision to spare my life. That's it."
The judge declared a deadlock in the sentencing phase of the trial against Nichols Friday after jurors couldn't agree on whether to give him the death penalty. Death sentences in Georgia require a unanimous jury decision, so Nichols automatically got life in prison. State law required Bodiford to decide which life prison sentence to give Nichols.
"This is not a criticism of the jury," Bodiford said. "They did everything they could to come up with a unanimous decision. Sometimes it's impossible to do."
Prosecutors had urged jurors to sentence Nichols to death after he was convicted last month of murder and dozens of other counts in the killings.
The sentence caps more than three years of efforts to bring Nichols to justice since his arrest that were repeatedly bogged down by legal complications, frustrating victims' relatives and angering state legislators over the costs.
Nichols was being escorted to his trial for rape when he beat a deputy guarding him and stole her gun. He burst into the courtroom and shot and 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.
Nichols, who was raised in Baltimore, 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," defense attorney Henderson Hill said.
Prosecutor Clint Rucker called Nichols an "extremely dangerous" killer who would try to escape again if sent to prison for life.
Nichols' rampage prompted attorneys and judges to question their safety and law enforcement around the state to re-examine courthouse security measures.