A decade after Brian Nichols: Fulton Court still moving toward safety

At the Fulton County Courthouse, they refer to it as “3/11.”

That’s shorthand for the day 10 years ago that Brian Nichols unleashed mayhem on that building, as well as the city of Atlanta.

On trial for rape, Nichols overpowered a deputy and took her gun. Before it was over, three people — including the judge who was to preside over his case — would die at the courthouse. Nichols also killed a federal agent he crossed paths with and kidnapped a woman before surrendering the next day.

A decade later, most will agree that the courthouse is much safer than it was that day in 2005 – and steps are being taken to increase safety. But there have also been complaints that the sprawling courthouse in downtown Atlanta still has a long way to go. Law enforcement officials, as well as judges and lawyers, believe more deputies are needed to beef up security.

“We are short staffed,” Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson said. “Staffing at the Fulton County Jail is a priority as mandated by the federal court. When it comes to safety of the courthouse, personnel are moved around to provide proper security as needed.”

Lt. Col. Maria McKee, commander of the office’s court services division, said immediately after the Nichols attack, the court undertook several immediate changes.

Modifications were made in the detention area; locks were improved; duress signals were implemented, and additional cameras were installed; gun-lockers were revamped, and X-ray machines were purchased and replaced.

Patrols have increased inside and outside of the building. Police dogs routinely search the exterior of the building and the parking lots. And changes have been made in the way prisoners are transported.

“The most important questions are do we feel safe and are we safe? The answers are yes and yes,” said Superior Court of Fulton County Chief Judge Gail S. Tusan. “Improvements have been made. But there is always a list of things that can be done. We have gone through a tough economic decline. The sheriff has done a good job, but it is always a matter of resources.”

Manpower and financing go hand-in-hand. Last year, as part of a federal mandate to fully staff the jail, Jackson sent a request to county commissioners to fund the hiring of 339 additionaldeputies over the next four years. Many of those deputies would be deployed to the courthouse.

No decision has been made on that request. In the meantime, the agency is short-staffed and at times stretched to the limits, Jackson said.

Every day at 8:30 a.m., a long line of jurors, lawyers and people trying to resolve their cases forms outside of the courthouse. Those entering the building clear their pockets and bags, take out their computers and remove their coats. After placing them on a conveyor belt, they slowly walk through a set of metal detectors — all under the watchful eyes of a team of deputies.

In an undisclosed location in another part of the building, a $1.5 million command center is under construction and scheduled to open by the end of the year. The room, and an additional $3 million worth of surveillance cameras for both the Justice Center Complex and the Fulton County Government Center, was funded by a $4.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Economic Development bond.

Lt. Leon Gates, the building’s security manager, recently stood alone in the room, save for a bank of eight stations, each housing three monitors. When it opens, about five deputies will permanently man the stations and monitor 300 HD cameras currently being installed throughout the courthouse.

The new system will replace the current control room where deputies now watch courtroom activity on a bunch of tiny monitors. Several studies point to that faulty system as a critical failure of 3/11.

At the moment when Nichols overpowered the deputy, only one officer was watching the monitors.

Asked if the new command center could have prevented the events of 3/11, Gates said, “That is not a fair comparison. But this will certainly aid in tracking an individual. There are very few places … within this facility that a camera does not pick up. And I can tell you this, when I got here in 2010, we had one camera in the holding area. Now we have several.”

It was in a holding cell that, on March 11, 2005 Nichols savagely beat 52-year-old Deputy Cynthia Hall, who was to escort him to court. He then used Hall’s gun to kill Judge Rowland Barnes, court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau and Deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley before fleeing.

Later that day, he killed off-duty federal agent David Wilhelm at his home.

Nichols was captured the next day, tried and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“I would say it was even safe then,” McKee said. “It was just something that happened. It was very isolated. It was a terrible tragedy that we don’t ever want to see repeated.”

Dennis Scheib, a local defense attorney who works out of the courthouse several times a week, said he still has concerns that a similar tragedy could be repeated, although he has no problems with the deputies and the work they are doing now.

“I still don’t think they have enough deputies in the courtroom,” Schieb said. “The sheriff needs to have more deputies everywhere, because the courtrooms are packed with people, and at any time a situation can become volatile.

On average, there are two deputies in each courtroom. But that number varies, depending on the case.

“There is usually only one deputy in the courtroom and sometimes the courtroom is standing room only. I would feel a lot safer if there were at least two deputies there,” said Stephanie D. Dixon, a local attorney, who specializes in family law.

“Also, the security at the entrance into the courthouse needs to be streamlined. I think that the deputies do a great job with the resources that they have, but the system could be improved to become more efficient.”

McKee, who has been with the county for 26 years, said she currently has about 170 people assigned to the courthouse. That is about half of what she needs.

“ Ideally, I would love to see six or seven deputies in every courtroom,” McKee said. “But our courtrooms don’t need that much and some judges don’t want that many.”

Tusan said there have been rare instances where court has been delayed because a deputy was not available to open a courtroom.

“It is not a recurring or everyday problem,” Tusan said. “But one occasion is too many.”

State law requires sheriffs in every county to develop a courthouse security plan, which must be approved by senior judges. Tusan said she has had several conversations with McKee and members of the Fulton County Commissioners about her concerns and needs.

“I don’t think about the incidents of March 11 every day,” Tusan said. “But I think all of us have made the necessary adjustments. We are more aware of the importance of acting in a way to keep us all safe.”

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