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Shipp: Judge now wiser after leaving Nichols case

POSTED: April 2, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Senior Judge Hilton Fuller probably deserves an award after abruptly resigning as presiding judge over the Brian Nichols multiple-murders case. Perhaps the judge ought to be considered for an honorary degree in journalism ethics. He has certainly completed the requisite course while overseeing preparations for the Nichols trial.

High-profile legal writer Jeffrey Toobin, working on a piece for the New Yorker magazine, probably taught Judge Fuller two great lessons in dealing with media stars: No good deed shall go unpunished, and never trust a reporter whom you'll likely never encounter again.

Toobin quoted the judge as saying that "everybody knew" Nichols killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and three other people in 2005. The judge says he doesn't remember saying such a thing, even though the assumption about Nichols is undoubtedly correct. Nichols went on his killing spree in broad daylight before numerous witnesses. Nichols also tried to enter a guilty plea if the state would drop its demand for the death penalty. Survivors of one of the victims objected, and the deal was shelved.

Judge Fuller says he had an agreement with Toobin to give the New York-based writer a background briefing on the case. In return, Toobin was not to quote Fuller without specific permission. Toobin contends he had no such agreement and everything Fuller said was on the record.

In any event, Judge Fuller quit the Nichols case. He believed Toobin and the New Yorker had compromised his position beyond repair. Thus the judge learned that some journalists will go to any lengths to get a juicy story into print.

My guess: Toobin lied. Though I do not know the fellow, I do know Judge Fuller. It is inconceivable to me that he would have given an unrestricted on-the-record interview about the Nichols case to any reporter. Even so, Judge Fuller is out, but undoubtedly a wiser judge when it comes to dealing with hotdog freelance writers from out of town.

As Atlanta defense attorney B.J. Bernstein points out in an essay on the Fuller-Toobin matter, reporters are fortunate to find a judge, any judge, who will explain, even off the record, the details of a pending case.

In the ancient past, I was blessed with the friendship of an appellate judge who handled several complicated civil rights cases. On several occasions, he walked me through the cases, explaining convoluted rulings and their possible impact. I never broke my word to keep our conversations as deep background. Forty years later, that judge remains among the most admirable people I know.

Judge X performed a vital public service in explaining technical legal matters to an untutored reporter assigned to interpret them in plain English for public consumption. People needed understanding of legalities that would have a profound impact on their lives.

I understand why most judges are loath to discuss cases with reporters. They never know when they may be talking to a Toobin.

As for Judge Fuller, he opened a Pandora's Box of statewide legal problems as he tackled the Nichols case. He delved into why the legislature had frozen funding for the state's indigent legal defense kitty and why Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard had initiated such an expensive investigation of Nichols.

The legislature responded to Judge Fuller by announcing an investigation of his work, and the Fulton DA moved to have him kicked off the case.

As soon as Cobb County Superior Court Judge James G. "Jim" Bodiford was appointed to succeed Fuller, he issued a statement through Cobb courts administrator Skip Cheshire: Judge Bodiford will not comment on the Nichols case or his appointment to preside over the trial.

• • •

A Georgia information-technology specialist, William Myrick Thomas of Conyers, has established a Web site (www.dropthedash.com) to encourage ethnic groups "to stop prefixing their Americanism with their ethnicity," as in African-American presidential candidate Barack Obama.

If everybody was simply an American "without a dash," says Thomas, "we could change the way our politicians see us and how the world sees America."

• • •

More than $18 million has been inserted in the pending state budget to buy additional aircraft for the state. The budget item came to our attention shortly after Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson took off within an hour of each other in separate state planes to attend the same meeting in St. Simons.

Perdue and Cagle have used state helicopters for commuting, Cagle from his home in Gainesville and Perdue all the way from the Mansion in Buckhead to the state Capitol.

• • •

State Rep. Ed Seltzer, R-Acworth, has introduced a bill to bar the installation of tiny computer chips under people's skin without permission. Seltzer says plans to implant chips in our military personnel are already under way. The lawmaker says he sees such an effort as a threat to our privacy and constitutional rights.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160. First published Feb. 6, 2008.



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