Delays Costly In Courthouse Slaying Suspect's Trial

The trial of Brian Nichols, the man accused of killing four people while escaping from a Georgia county jail in 2005, resumes Thursday. Many people thought his case should have been wrapped up long ago. But Georgia's defense fund ran out of money — making the trial run into a number of delays.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People in Georgia are questioning the amount of money spent on a high-profile defendant. The man is Brian Nichols; he's accused of killing four people while escaping from an Atlanta courthouse, and he's back in court today. After three and a half years and several court delays, there is still no verdict and the public is paying millions. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: From the start, the Nichols case has been extraordinary. Local TV and radio stations covered the shooting spree nonstop until the suspect surrendered the next day.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Brian Nichols is considered armed and dangerous, and they are continuing their search for them even as we speak. Emotions have run from shock and disbelief here to utter devastation at the shootings that happened here in the Fulton County Courthouse.

Mr. MICHAEL MEARS (Georgia Public Defender Standards Council): How many times has any state seen that type of criminal mayhem take place with one defendant?

LOHR: Michael Mears is former director of the state's Public Defender Standards Council and associate dean of John Marshall Law School.

Mr. MEARS: I think the comparisons that you should make would be something along the lines of a terrorist type of action. It just doesn't happen.

LOHR: The murders of a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent led to a 54-count indictment, a list of about 500 prosecution witnesses, and several hundred hours of taped recordings. The defense has spent nearly $2 million before the trial. Mears says one reason is the intense prosecution.

Mr. MEARS: We have 54 counts to the indictment. No attorney without committing malpractice can go to trial without investigating and preparing to defend all 54 counts. If you've got 500 witnesses on a witness list, no attorney should ever go to trial without knowing what those 500 witnesses are going to say. So there's a tremendous amount of responsibility for the magnitude of this case that has to be placed at the doorstep of the prosecution.

LOHR: Brian Nichols' defense has been expensive, but the cost pales in comparison to other high-profile cases. The federal government spent nearly $18 million on attorneys for convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and $4 million on the defense of Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, even though he received a plea deal of life in prison.

Still, some say the new Georgia public defender system has serious problems.

Mr. PATRICK HEAD (District attorney, Cobb County, Georgia): I believe that they could've taken better steps at controlling the cost from day one.

LOHR: Patrick Head is district attorney in Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb.

Mr. HEAD: I think that there's going to have to be some review. And understand that you cannot write a blank check, there is not unlimited resources out there available, and you have to control and best use what you have.

LOHR: State Senator Preston Smith agrees. Georgia's cost of the public defender system is $40 million this year - eight times what it paid in 2000 - and he's working to change it.

State Senator PRESTON SMITH (Republican, Georgia): The constitution says in Georgia that you have to provide an adequate criminal defense. It doesn't mean that you have an O.J. Simpson-style defense. It's just unreasonable to do that. So I think what we have to do is look back at the code and say what is reasonable, what is an adequate defense, what should a case cost. And I think it all comes down to finding some reasonable balance.

LOHR: Smith says the cost of the Nichols case is making prosecutors think twice about whether to seek the death penalty in future cases. Some argue fines and fees in the criminal courts pay for the system so money shouldn't be an issue. And defense attorneys say the case wouldn't have cost this much if the district attorney had taken the death penalty off the table. But in this case that was never going to happen.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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