Fulton asked to pay back $750,000 for Brian Nichols defense

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council has asked Fulton County to repay the state almost $750,000 for the cost of defending courthouse murderer Brian Nichols.

Fulton has already spent $620,888 for experts and Nichols’ lead attorney. But according to the council’s calculations, Fulton County owes another $747,924.

The letter sent last week cites a 2008 law that allows the state to recoup from counties some of the cost of representing defendants in capital cases.

This is the first time the law has been used, though the council and Paulding County are negotiating the split of the cost of defending Michael Ledford in May. Ledford was convicted and sentenced to die for the 2006 murder of a Sandy Springs woman he attacked as she biked the Silver Comet Trail.

Mack Crawford, director of the agency that runs the statewide indigent defense system, declined to comment beyond the letter he wrote to Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves. The letter simply cited the law and explained how the council arrived at the balance owed.

Crawford’s letter asked for the money within 30 days of the letter dated Aug. 5.

Bills for Nichols’ defense were unsealed last month, showing the state’s share of his legal costs at more than $2.3 million. Money the county has already spent pushes the total cost of the Nichols defense to almost $3 million.

If the county pays Georgia the money it has requested, those dollars will go into the state general fund and will not reimburse the council for the money it spent.

Fulton Commissioner Lynne Riley said the state’s letter surprised her.

And she wondered if the Nichols case is covered by the 2008 law since his crime was committed three years before then. Nichols is serving multiple sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the March 11, 2005, murders of Judge Rowland Barnes, court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau, Fulton deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm.

“I have asked the county attorney to look at it and provide the board with some kind of opinion and recommendation,” Riley said Tuesday. “It’s quite a bit of money. If we are, by law, liable, we will have to address the situation.

“Rest assured, the county attorney will look at it very closely,” Riley said.

A message left at the Fulton County attorney’s office late Tuesday afternoon was not returned.

At the time of the courthouse shooting, the statewide indigent defense system was only three months old and Nichols was its first significant case, and to date its largest.

The extraordinary cost of defending Nichols — four lawyers plus experts — almost crushed the indigent defense system. Some also feared the financial burden of defending Nichols defense also would endanger the death penalty in Georgia.