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Sheriff Criticized for Atlanta Courthouse Shooting Spree

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Sheriff Criticized for Atlanta Courthouse Shooting Spree

Law

Sheriff Criticized for Atlanta Courthouse Shooting Spree

Sheriff Criticized for Atlanta Courthouse Shooting Spree

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Emily Kopp of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports on the criticism leveled at Georgia's Fulton County sheriff over lax security at the county courthouse in Atlanta. In March, a shooting spree there by a suspect who fought his way to freedom left a judge and two other court employees dead.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, Slate's David Greenberg on how to make history attractive to the masses without sacrificing intellectual rigor.

But first, remember that courthouse shooting in Atlanta a couple of months ago? A judge, a court reporter and two law enforcement officers were killed, and the suspect took a woman hostage before surrendering. Well, that suspect, Brian Nichols, has pleaded not guilty to 54 counts against him. Prosecutors say they'll seek the death penalty. Meanwhile pressure is mounting on the local sheriff to take the blame for lax security that day and to prove the courthouse is safer now. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Emily Kopp reports.

EMILY KOPP reporting:

Security is the hot topic at the Fulton County Courthouse. Some people say the Sheriff's Department could have taken precautions to prevent the shootings. Lawyer David Allman was waiting in Judge Rowland Barnes' chambers on March 11th. He heard the gunshots that ended Barnes' life.

Mr. DAVID ALLMAN (Lawyer): You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if the Sheriff's Department is charged with security and there's a breach of security, the Sheriff's Department's at fault.

KOPP: Allman says someone should be fired. Instead, Sheriff Myron Freeman has defended his employees, insisting they followed procedures. But there was a laundry list of apparent security breaches. For example, before the shootings, guards found homemade weapons in Nichols' shoes. Judge Barnes requested tighter security, but none was provided. Surveillance cameras caught the scuffle between Nichols and the lone female deputy guarding him, but no one in the control room reacted. Sheriff Freeman has said little to reporters since then and was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. But at a rare April news conference, he said his department was doing its best.

Sheriff MYRON FREEMAN (Fulton County): We have been diligent and we are working on this, and we are going to continue to work on security. Security is an ever-evolving situation. You always have to improve.

KOPP: Since then, Freeman says he's taken steps to beef up security. The department has reduced the number of jail inmates coming to court each day. Deputies have received stun gun training, although they still carry loaded weapons in the courthouse. Freeman has set up a 24-member task force to examine what happened on March 11th. One member, DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown, says the task force will find out whether deputies neglected their duties.

Sheriff THOMAS BROWN (DeKalb County): Our committee is the single committee that will determine who did what right, who did what wrong, and we're prepared to call names and state what they did.

KOPP: But even the task force has been controversial. It includes ministers, a Homeowners Association president, an insurance executive and others with no clear expertise in security. Freeman has said he'll implement whatever corrective action they suggest. But Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard would prefer Freeman take the lead.

Mr. PAUL HOWARD (Fulton County District Attorney): Yeah, I don't think that security is a grab-bag issue. It ought to be done professionally. It ought to be done competently. And I guess I would prefer that singular voice of security and safety. I'm waiting for the word from high.

KOPP: Some people are fed up with waiting. Lawyer Steven Leibel represents a group that runs recallfreeman.com, a Web site dedicated to the sheriff's ouster.

Mr. STEVEN LEIBEL (Recallfreeman.com): If we were in private industry, Myron Freeman would have been fired, but because he's an elected official, he needs to fire himself, or the voters need to fire him in a recall.

KOPP: But others say that's hasty. Public defender Suparna Malempati says the March 11th shooting spree was an aberration for which no one was prepared. She remembers Judge Barnes kept his chamber doors unlocked and left the buzzer disconnected.

Ms. SUPARNA MALEMPATI (Public Defender): Every time I would go, it was easy for me because I was usually in a rush trying to get things, and so I could just go inside whenever I wanted. But it did occur to me that they should have a buzzer there, because you don't know who's coming in. Anyone could walk in, but we never imagined the situation that was going to happen on March 11th. I don't think anyone did--no one. In fact, in the legal community across the country, you've never heard of a sitting judge being shot in the head.

KOPP: Police say Nichols came through that entrance on his way to the courtroom. Now judges keep their doors locked. They've also hired outside security experts to inspect the courthouse and assess policies. Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs says judges are taking more responsibility for their own safety.

Judge DORIS DOWNS (Superior Court): We'd all really gotten much too comfortable in a courthouse that we're fully aware has high emotion occurring in every courtroom, and we didn't really realize what a big part of our own security each of us that works here is.

KOPP: Even though the Fulton County judges are taking security issues into their own hands, Downs says they support Sheriff Freeman. Meanwhile, more judges across the state are taking advantage of a law that allows them to carry guns into court. For NPR News, I'm Emily Kopp in Atlanta.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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