Murderer Nichols' tab: $3 million and growing

It cost more than more $3 million to give courthouse killer Brian Nichols a fair trial. The state paid about $2.3 million of the cost, while Fulton County paid about $625,000, according to records released Tuesday.

Mike Mears, a veteran death penalty lawyer who initially oversaw payments to the defense, said costs should not have exceeded $500,000. He blamed them on Senior Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, who he said refused to rein in excessive defense spending in the trial’s early stages.

“It was a Cadillac defense,” said Mears, who was director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council at the time. “They had a judge sitting on the bench who I would describe as a ... dream judge. He was a judge who was willing to give them whatever they wanted without too many restrictions.”

Attempts to reach Fuller for comment were unsuccessful.

Lead defense lawyer Henderson Hill said Mears was not being realistic, given the need to investigate Nichols’ wide-ranging background and mental-health issues. He said Fuller approved funding requests because the judge recognized them as legitimate.

“There was nothing about the decisions that Judge Fuller made that was different from what the Constitution requires,” Hill said. “There is nothing about this case that I wouldn’t do when I represented somebody on a death penalty.”

Fuller, who came under fire from state legislators for the defense costs, never saw the case to trial. He stepped down in January 2008, after he was quoted about Nichols’ guilt in The New Yorker. Superior Court Judge James Bodiford finished the case.

Late Tuesday, Bodiford finished unsealing most of the Nichols’ trial records, including defense costs. But the records do not include costs of prosecution and other trial-related expenses borne by the county.

Mears said he resisted the defense team’s early demands for an almost open funding spigot. He feared it would crush the statewide indigent defense system.

The indigent defense system was only three months old when Nichols escaped on March 11, 2005, from the Fulton County Courthouse, where he was on trial for rape.

Late last year, the jury convicted Nichols for the murders of Judge Rowland Barnes, court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau, deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm. The jury rejected the death penalty, however, and Nichols was sentenced to life without parole.

Nichols’ trial is believed to be the most expensive death penalty case in Georgia history. Costs billed were:

● $463,000 for mental health experts, investigators and a trial consultant to help the defense. Fulton County said it paid another $125,000 for mental health costs.

● $12,500 to rent an apartment for five months for the defense team.

● $831,000 to Hill’s firm for his fees until January 2008 and the hours of an associate for the entire case. Fulton County said it paid another $496,000 to Hill’s firm.

● $447,000 to defense attorney Robert McGlasson.

● $11,128 for expenses to lawyer Penny Marshall, who worked for no salary.

● $463,155 for defense experts.

● $105,954 for expenses.

● State officials estimate the case cost another $300,000 for state-supplied staff and other expenses.

Defense lawyers and experts have billed the state for another $158,000 that hasn’t been paid.

Until Tuesday, the total cost of defending Nichols was only speculation because the two judges assigned to the case had prohibited the release of that information because it might reveal defense strategy.

Hill said the legal costs were driven up by battles with state officials who resisted paying them. The defense lawyers also geared up for trial three times because of delays over funding.