Brian Gene Nichols
December 10, 1971
|Criminal charge(s)||murder, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault on a police officer, battery, theft, carjacking, rape and escape.|
|Criminal penalty||Life Imprisonment|
Brian Gene Nichols (born December 10, 1971) is known for his escape and killing spree in the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia on March 11, 2005. Nichols was on trial for rape when he escaped from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and later a federal agent. After a large-scale manhunt was launched in the metropolitan Atlanta area, Nichols was taken into custody 26 hours later. The prosecution charged him with committing 54 crimes during the escape and he was found guilty on all counts on November 7, 2008.
Nichols grew up in a middle class household in Baltimore, Maryland and attended Cardinal Gibbons School. He later attended Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in Kutztown, Pennsylvania from 1989 to 1990, where he played football and was known for having a "knack for trouble". Nichols dropped out of college and moved to Georgia in 1995, where he worked for Hewlett-Packard and later UPS.
Nichols was later arrested on multiple charges for the rape, kidnapping, and assault of a former girlfriend after discovering that she was dating a minister from the church that they both attended. The first attempt at a trial ended with a mistrial and a hung jury. While awaiting a second trial, friends and family members of Nichols expressed concern that he would attempt to escape and that Nichols had tried to formulate an escape plan with a friend.
The shootings and escape
On March 11, 2005 Nichols overpowered a sheriff's deputy while changing clothes, stealing her gun. Reports stated that Nichols had previously attempted to sneak "shanks" into the courtroom via his shoes. Nichols then changed into civilian clothes originally intended for use during the trial and entered the courthouse, where he entered the chambers of Judge Rowland Barnes. On his way to Barnes's chambers, Nichols encountered case managers Susan Christy and Gina Clarke Thomas as well as attorney David Allman, whom he held at gunpoint and demanded directions to Barnes's location. During this time Sergeant Grantley White entered the courtroom and attempted to disarm Nichols but failed, and was forced to handcuff the others. White managed to set off an alarm, which Nichols attempted to dispel, using White's radio.
Nichols later progressed into the courtroom where he shot Barnes, as well as court reporter Julie Brandau. He later shot Sergeant Hoyt Teasley while escaping from the prison. Nichols car-jacked several vehicles during his escape and was featured on America's Most Wanted during his manhunt.
A reward of $65,000 was announced for anyone that could give information leading to Nichols' arrest. Attempts to find Nichols were largely unsuccessful and it was reported that Nichols had attempted to kidnap a young woman as she was walking home from a gymnasium she regularly attended. Nichols fled after hearing the young woman call 911 after her boyfriend defended her from Nichols. Later that day, ICE Agent David G. Wilhelm was shot dead in his home and several of his belongings, including his badge, a gun, and a pickup truck, were stolen. Nichols was believed to have been a suspect in the shooting death.
Police later received a 9-1-1 call from a young woman by the name of Ashley Smith, who stated that Nichols was at her Duluth, Georgia apartment. Law enforcement responded to the scene where Nichols surrendered himself to the authorities. Authorities recovered several stolen firearms and Agent Wilhelm's wallet. The stolen truck was discovered about two miles away from the apartment. Smith later reported to police that she had been approached by Nichols on March 12, who forced his way into her apartment. Once in the apartment, she supplied Nichols with methamphetamine, and she also read portions of The Purpose Driven Life to him. She also tried convincing him to turn himself in by telling Nichols about her husband's death and showing him a scar that she had received from a car wreck while under the influence of drugs. Nichols eventually allowed Smith to leave to see her daughter, after which she placed the call to the police. Smith later received reward money for her assistance in Nichols's capture.
Indictment and trial
On May 5, 2005 Nichols was indicted by a Fulton County grand jury on 54 counts including murder, felony murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, theft, carjacking, and escape from authorities. Nichols initially pled not guilty, with his lawyers stating that they wanted to defend Nichols on the basis of mental health. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced he would seek the death penalty. Nichols became Georgia's most expensive defendant, with his case topping $3 million for the prosecution and defense combined.
The case was presided over by Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller and was set to take place in July in the same courtroom in which the earlier murders had taken place. The trial was temporarily placed on hold in order to find new accommodation, as Superior Court Judge James Bodiford ruled that "fundamental fairness" made it necessary to move the trial to another location. While awaiting trial Nichols attempted to make another escape which did not progress past the planning stage, and Nichols was moved to DeKalb County jail in October 2006. The trial began on September 22, 2008 in the Atlanta Municipal Court, where Nichols pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and his defense attempted to have the trial delayed. This was refused.
During the trial audio recordings of the murders were played, with the prosecution attempting to discredit Nichols's claims of mental instability. Witnesses were brought forward who testified that Nichols had not shown signs of mental illness during his rape trial. The prison guard who Nichols had attacked, was not able to testify at the trial, as the injuries she sustained from Nichols had left her with no memory of the event. Nichols admitted to the shootings in a statement to the police, but claimed that the shooting of Wilhelm was due to the Agent pointing a gun at him. Forensic evidence did not support this statement, instead showing that Wilhelm had been shot while kneeling and that he had other injuries, which indicated that the Agent was not holding a gun.
Prosecutors concluded their 54-count case against Nichols on October 14, 2008, by showing autopsy photos of his four victims. The prosecution took 17 days and 76 witnesses to present the case.
Nichols's defense argued that he was insane and should not be held accountable for his actions. The defense stated that he had previously shown signs of depression and suicidal ideations after breaking up with his girlfriend. An attorney who represented Nichols in his rape trial testified that Nichols had expressed belief that his ex-girlfriend would not testify against him and still loved him despite receiving injuries from the rape. Psychology experts were brought forward to testify that Nichols had had an abusive childhood and that his father's history of drug abuse led to Nichols abusing drugs in his adult life as well. The defense also provided college papers written by Nichols that expressed Nichols's belief that white people were involved in a conspiracy to eradicate the black race.
Conviction and sentencing
The jury deliberated for twelve hours, over two days, before finding Nichols guilty of all 54 counts, on November 7, 2008.
On December 13, 2008, Nichols was sentenced to multiple life sentences with no chance of parole. Bodiford handed down the maximum sentence on each of the charges, to run consecutively. Nichols was spared multiple death sentences when the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision, as required by Georgia law, to recommend the death penalty. Bodiford said, "If there was any more I could give you, I would." Nichols is incarcerated in Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison.
Some family members of the victims filed civil lawsuits against the county for the deaths of their family members, with the county awarding 5 million dollars in damages.
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- Recording of Gwinnett County Police capturing Nichols
- Man Flees After Killing Judge and 2 Others at Atlanta Court(subscription required)
- Defendant overpowers deputy, kills 3
- "Judge, Two Others Killed in Atlanta Courthouse Shooting; Manhunt Continues"
- Grand Jury Indicts Nichols
- Hostage Gave Meth to Atlanta Fugitive
- Lawyers for Brian Nichols Back in Court for Motions article on the trial (April 17, 2006)
- State of the trial 2007
- USA Today's report on the incident
- Article update from the New Yorker, February 4, 2008