Judge in Atlanta Courthouse Shooting Steps Down

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The judge in the murder case of a man charged with killing four people in a shooting spree that began inside a courthouse said Wednesday he is stepping down because of perceptions he is biased.

Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller announced his decision in a letter to Doris Downs, the chief judge for Fulton County Superior Court. He cited recent media reports referring to a quote in a magazine article attributed to him asserting that Brian Nichols was guilty.

"Judicial impartiality, real and perceived, is a critical element of the trial process," Fuller wrote to Downs. "In light of recent media reports, I am no longer hopeful that I can provide a trial perceived to be fair to both the state and the accused."

Fuller, a retired DeKalb County judge who was asked to take the Nichols case after all Fulton County judges recused themselves.

"I accepted this case for all the right reasons," Fuller said Wednesday. "It bothers me that I must surrender it at this time before its completion. But it is the right thing to do for the case and the judicial system."

The latest problem for Fuller arose this week when The New Yorker published an article quoting Fuller as asserting that Nichols committed the crimes. Fuller has insisted he didn't recall making the comment.

Fuller had suspended the trial indefinitely because the state public defender's office, amid a budget crunch, cut off funding to Nichols' lawyers. That decision helped make him the subject of a state legislative panel inquiry, and prosecutors have requested that he be removed from the case.

Fuller repeatedly expressed concern that if the trial were to go forward and Nichols were convicted, an appellate court would reverse the conviction because of ineffective counsel. He received support from others in the legal community who worried judicial independence was being threatened by state lawmakers seeking to review Fuller's decisions.

Authorities say Nichols, 36, was being escorted to a courtroom in the Fulton County Courthouse for the continuation of his rape retrial on March 11, 2005, when he beat a deputy and stole her gun.

He is accused of killing the judge presiding over the rape trial; a court reporter; a sheriff's deputy who chased him outside; and a federal agent that night. Nichols surrendered the next day after allegedly taking a woman hostage in her suburban Atlanta home.

Nichols, who could face the death penalty if convicted, has pleaded not guilty.