Friday, March 11, 2005

Bad Things Afoot in Downtown Atlanta

Some serious shit went down in my home town today, much worse than what happened here last night:

Man Flees After Killing Judge and 2 Others at Atlanta Court

A judge and a court reporter were shot and killed at the Fulton County Courthouse this morning when a defendant who was on trial for rape grabbed a sheriff's deputy's gun, opened fire and then kept shooting as he fled into downtown Atlanta, wounding others and killing at least one deputy, the police said.

Several city streets around the courthouse have been blocked off as law enforcement officials crawl through downtown in search of the man, identified as Brian Nichols, 33, said Lt. Clarence Huber, a spokesman for the Fulton County Sheriff's Department.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor confirmed that Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and his court reporter were killed, The Associated Press said. He gave no other details in announcing the deaths in the state Senate.

The court reporter was identified as Julie Brandau, 43.

Several news agencies reported that Mr. Nichols may be traveling in a Green Honda, and that he may have hijacked other cars in his escape. A reporter for The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, Don O'Briant, was driving the green Honda police believe Mr. Nichols is driving.

Mr. O'Briant wrote in the newspaper's Web site edition that he was parking his car to report to work when a young man who was not wearing a shirt got into his car and pointed a gun at him.

"He said "Give me your keys or I'll kill you!"" Mr. O'Briant wrote. "I gave him the keys, and then he said "Get in the trunk."

"I said no. I thought maybe I was going to be killed, but I wasn't going to get in the trunk," he wrote. "I turned to run, and that's when he hit me in the head with his gun. I fell down, and I got up and ran into a garbage bin. I got up again and ran. I scrambled into the street, waiting for the shots to come, but they didn't come. He must have been out of bullets, because he didn't shoot me."

Several lawyers who work in the courthouse said that Mr. Nichols had been charged with raping his fiancée. A trial for him ended last week in a hung jury, and a new trial was beginning this week.

Mr. Nichols was wearing civilian clothes during the proceedings in Judge Barnes' eighth-floor courtroom, lawyers said, and he would not have been handcuffed.

"The defendant took the deputy's gun and held the courtroom hostage and shot the judge," Renee Rockwell, a defense attorney, told CNN.

Lillie Robbins, a civil rights investigator who was serving on another jury, said she had just gone through a security entrance to get into the courthouse and was standing in the lobby this morning when sheriff's deputies came through.

"All these sheriff's deputy's broke out of the elevator on a dead run," she said. "They were yelling 'Get out, get out of the building!' "

She said that when she went outside she saw a sheriff's deputy lying on the ground who had apparently been shot during the chase.

A sense of dread seemed to grip that part of downtown Atlanta. Police had locked down a parking garage near the courthouse and were not letting people in or out. On freeway overpass signs, the authorities had posted messages urging the public's help in the search for the suspect. One sign said: "Police suspect/ Green Honda Accord/ Call police." Another sign said: "Police activity at Fulton County Courthouse."

Several people said Judge Barnes had been well respected. Matthew Welch, a defense attorney, said about him: "He was very fair."

"I had a client who really tested the judge and he didn't take it out on him," he said, adding that his client had stepped out of the courtroom during a plea discussion, and had fled.

Mr. Welch said the judge "didn't hold it against him. He offered him the original recommendation."

But he said, "he did give him a strong talking to, of course."

In a July 2002 article in the food section of The Journal-Constitution about Ms. Brandau and how much she loved to cook, Judge Barnes wrote: "Every day of every trial, she creates something special for our jurors."

"Everything she makes is delicious," he went on to say in the article, titled "In the Kitchen With...Julie Brandau."

"We have received hundreds of comments from jurors who, although they might not have enjoyed downtown parking, nevertheless loved the food. And it's no wonder, since her bright and cheerful personality overflows into the ingredients."