- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

ATLANTA (AP) — Brian Nichols, the man arrested in a deadly Atlanta courthouse rampage, was on his way to the courtroom at the time without handcuffs or leg irons because of a long string of legal rulings against letting a jury see a defendant in shackles.

Now, in the aftermath of the shooting spree, some law-enforcement officials are looking into better ways of preventing unruly behavior without running afoul of those rulings. They are hoping for clearer guidance on when it is OK to use restraints on defendants in the courtroom.

“When these cases happen, there’s a groundswell where people say, ‘Oh my God, we need to do something.’ I think we do. We need to look at heightened security issues,” said David Goad, a board member of the National Sheriff’s Association.

Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman announced on Tuesday that the courthouse will begin using stun belts on more inmates in the courtroom. The belts, which can send an eight-second, incapacitating jolt of electricity when activated by a deputy, are used by some courts across the country and are not easily visible to a jury.

In Atlanta yesterday, a girlfriend of Mr. Nichols said she gave birth to his child three days before the shooting spree.

“I do know that he wanted to be with the baby. He did speak about it all the time,” said Sonya Meredith, the mother of the baby boy. Investigators have suggested a motive for last week’s shootings was that Mr. Nichols, whose earlier rape trial had ended in a hung jury, was concerned about being convicted and imprisoned in his second trial.

Over the years, U.S. courts have held that letting a jury see a defendant in shackles is “inherently prejudicial” — that is, the shackles could make the defendant look more dangerous or more guilty.

The Supreme Court and other courts have made it clear that authorities should have good reason for shackling a defendant in the courtroom; otherwise, it could be grounds for throwing out a conviction.

“It’s got to be done only as a last resort, where the trial judge makes specific findings where there is nothing else that can be done to preserve the safety of the people in the courtroom and to make sure he doesn’t flee,” said Don Samuel, a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta.

Authorities say that is why Mr. Nichols was not in shackles or wearing a stun belt at the moment officials say he overpowered a deputy, stole her gun and then killed a judge and two others at the courthouse Friday. He also is accused of killing a federal agent while on the run.

Some have suggested that prosecutors could have won an argument for shackling Mr. Nichols. Two days before the courthouse shootings, authorities say, Mr. Nichols was found with a crude metal weapon in each of his shoes. The presiding judge, who was later killed, had requested extra security.

Prosecution spokesman Erik Friedly said he is not aware of anyone specifically asking that Mr. Nichols be shackled in the courtroom. He suggested that such a request might not have been granted.

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