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Shipp: Don’t be shocked if Nichols walks

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Don't be surprised to look up one day soon and see Brian Nichols a free man, playing golf with his lawyers at the Capital City Club. Or you might spot him tooling through Buckhead on a Harley with O.J.

Can't happen, you say? Sure it can, and it may happen because Georgia's legal defense system is befuddled and paralyzed. Knowledgeable lawyers opine that Nichols could have all charges dismissed because the state failed or refused to provide him a speedy trial.

Nichols is supposed to be tried one of these days for murdering Fulton County Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Brandau, Fulton Deputy Hoyt Teasely and federal agent David Wilhelm.

That Nichols was the killer is not even contested. His high-priced court-appointed defense attorneys claim he was insane at the time of the 2005 slaughter.

DeKalb County Senior Judge Hilton Fuller, trying his best to conduct an error-free trial of Nichols, has suddenly turned into a target of ridicule and anger for his seemingly against-all-odds efforts.

Judge Fuller abandoned jury selection a few weeks back when defense attorneys said they had run out of funds and could proceed no further. Picking the jury is due to start again shortly. Georgia's recently organized Public Defenders Council says it has already spent $1.8 million on Nichols' defense; the trial is not even under way.

Consider some of the other verbal explosions on the road to the Nichols' trial:

--Fulton D.A. Paul Howard, who also has spent a ton of public funds on the case, has filed a motion with the Supreme Court to remove Fuller and all members of Nichols' appointed defense team. Presumably, Howard would start from scratch with his 400-witness list, stacks of FBI reports and 54-count indictment.

Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson has announced the creation of a committee to investigate Fuller's "poor handling of public funds," adding that the House may consider impeaching Fuller.

--One of Judge Fuller's colleagues, Fulton Superior Court Judge Craig I. Schwall, has sent an e-mail to fellow judges, calling Fuller "a fool" and "a disgrace" and asking his removal from the case.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Philip Etheridge rose to Fuller's defense. "To get into a spitting contest with another judge who is taking on complicated and complex work is completely inappropriate," he informed Schwall, once a Republican operative who was appointed to the Superior Court bench by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

--There is irony too. While conservative Republicans try their best to bring down Georgia's indigent defense fund system and the Nichols trial with it, foes of capital punishment are dancing a jig. They see the possible firing of Judge Fuller and further delays in the trial as decisive steps toward saving Nichols from execution (or even a trial) and possibly suspending capital punishment in Georgia.

Meanwhile, additional legal skirmishes triggered by the Nichols episode are popping up.
Atlanta attorney Emmet J. Bondurant, immediate past chairman of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, has weighed in.

In a brief filed with the state Supreme Court, Bondurant argues "that sufficient funds are available in the state treasury" for appointed defense lawyers and that the legislature failed to allocate the funds, which were collected from designated court fees, not taxes, as some legislators have wrongly asserted.

Bondurant asks the high court to direct Fuller to order the governor and the state treasury to provide the legal funds for the trial or order its indefinite suspension.

At courthouses around the state, the railbirds spit and yawn. All they want out of this hubbub: the elimination of the state indigent defense system and a return to olden times when the judge parceled out defense appointments to the good old boys, and everybody lived happily, except for a few defendants who got life (or death) after a five-minute talk with their court-appointed lawyer.

Maybe somebody should slip Nichols a note in the Fulton jail. "Some Falcons tickets will be available toward the end of the season. Want a couple? You ought to be out by then. Nobody seems interested in your trial. They're all focused on red tape and the lawyers' bureaucracy. That's really good news for you."

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160.



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