Jury Selection Begins in Atlanta Shooting Case

Brian Nichols Captured

hide captionFBI agents escort murder suspect Brian Nichols from a holding facility in Atlanta on March 12, 2005. He had surrendered earlier that day.

Davis Turner/Getty Images

In Fulton County, Ga., Brian Nichols faces trial for allegedly killing four people in an Atlanta courthouse in 2005. Jury selection begins Thursday and could take several months. The county wants to move the trial, but couldn't find another jurisdiction willing to take it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Jury selection starts today in Atlanta for the trial of Brian Nichols. He's accused of murdering four people after he broke out of custody in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia. He'll be tried in the same courthouse where the shootings took place nearly two years ago.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The deadly shooting spree that began at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta shattered a quiet Friday morning and turned into the city's largest manhunt. While on trial for rape, Brian Nichols overpowered a deputy and broke free inside the courthouse. He then allegedly entered the courtroom where he'd been on trial and shot the judge, the court reporter and the deputy outside on the street, killing all of them.

Mr. J. TOM MORGAN (Former District Attorney, DeKalb County, Georgia): Oh, there was tremendous fear from everyone.

LOHR: J. Tom Morgan is a former DeKalb County prosecutor.

Mr. MORGAN: No one knew where he had gone. The word had gotten that he was on public transportation. So I remember everyone going home and basically locking their doors.

LOHR: After Nichols left the courthouse, he's accused of murdering a federal customs agent, stealing his weapon and heading to a suburban apartment where he took a hostage and remained there until he surrendered the next day.

In the 54-count indictment, Nichols is charged with multiple murders, kidnapping, assault and armed robbery. Now 3,500 potential jurors have been called in an effort to get a fair panel in a case where the district attorney is seeking the death penalty. Neither the DA nor the defense council would talk about the upcoming trial.

Criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, Donald Samuel.

Mr. DONALD SAMUEL (Attorney): You just have this overwhelming publicity and you know, the whole city was just gripped with fear. I mean, I was fearful. We all were fearful for the 24 hours where, you know, someone is on the loose kind of randomly shooting people. You're going to have a hard time picking the jury, and that's going to be tough.

LOHR: There's been so much attention to the Brian Nichols case that some legal experts say there is no way attorneys can find jurors who have not heard about it. But Samuel says that's OK.

Mr. SAMUEL: If you're a good defense attorney, you don't care whether the juror has heard something about this case. You don't care whether the juror watched television coverage, or read a confession, or even heard evidence that would be ruled in this. All you care about is whether the juror is going to be on your side when it comes to the penalty phase. So that's what the defense attorneys are going to be looking for, people who are really reluctant to impose the death penalty.

LOHR: That's one of the reasons the defense wanted to keep the trial in Fulton County, where it's most likely to find some jurors who will oppose the death penalty. They even suggested keeping Fulton County jurors but moving the trial out of the courthouse where many of the murders took place. But no other jurisdiction wanted to accept it. Morgan says it will be eerie for the jury to come back to the scene of the crime and hear the case just a few floors from where it happened.

Mr. MORGAN: I think it's going to be very difficult for the defense, and difficult for the jurors themselves, to deal with the case where the witnesses are going to be testifying about horrendous homicides that took place, you know, 20 yards from where they will be seating in the courtroom.

LOHR: Jury selection alone is expected to take a couple of months. The trial may extend into the summer. Because this was such a public crime, those watching the case say both sides want to take their time, make sure they get the right jury, and avoid errors so they don't have to try the case a second time.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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