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Security Gaffes Cited in Courthouse Spree

ATLANTA - The deputy, a 51-year-old woman just 5 feet tall, was simply no match for the inmate she was escorting to the courtroom, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound former college linebacker on trial for rape. Authorities say Brian Nichols overpowered deputy Cynthia Hall, took her gun, and easily gained access to the courtroom, where he went on to kill the judge and a court reporter.

Security cameras captured images of him overpowering the deputy, but no one, it turned out, was watching the screens. There were more security gaffes. Earlier in the week, Nichols was found to have had two homemade knives in his shoes while in court. And the vehicle reported to be his getaway car was found more than 13 hours after the shootings - in the same parking garage where it was allegedly carjacked.

Authorities are investigating how the security breakdowns happened on that bloody Friday morning, and they are vowing changes will be made. The issue is getting national attention as well, with Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he would hold congressional hearings on improving security at courthouses and for judges.

Among the issues being looked at in Georgia are better training, increasing deputy staffing, requiring inmates to be handcuffed in the courtroom and a security standard that would apply to every courthouse in the state.

"You go to courthouses across Georgia, you would find everything from high security to no security," said state Sen. Joseph Carter, a lawyer. "I've been to courthouses where they see you in a suit and they say, Are you an attorney? Come on in.' You appreciate the courtesy, but that always gives you a little pause."

The heightened security is the result of what happened when Nichols, 33, allegedly went on a rampage as he was being taken to the courtroom for his rape trial. In addition to the judge and court reporter, he is accused of killing a deputy outside the courthouse and a federal agent while he was on the run. Nichols surrendered Saturday after a woman he had taken hostage apparently coaxed him into it.

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Clarence Huber declined to elaborate on what security changes were made at the Fulton County Courthouse when it reopened Monday. But longer lines at a checkpoint near the entrance indicated more thorough searches.

Huber said the courthouse had a good track record before the rampage, but added, "We're going to be much more vigilant and much more cautious in doing our jobs."

Prosecutors actually had asked for increased security surrounding Nichols last week after he was found with the homemade knives - one crafted by a door hinge, another from piece of metal "the size of a TV remote," said Barry Hazen, the suspect's attorney in his rape trial.

Hazen said security at the courthouse has long been a concern. He said he has met with inmates in rooms without the protection of a deputy outside. Microphone wire guides made of metal or plastic sit on courtroom tables, potential weapons within easy reach of an inmate, Hazen said.

"There were times when I felt very uncomfortable," he said. "I don't think they have enough deputies."

Huber said the number of deputies at the courthouse is sufficient, but acknowledged that inmates outnumber the staff. "It's not uncommon to be moving four inmates at one time - with only one deputy with them," Huber said.

Authorities have said Nichols was not in handcuffs or shackles as he was being moved to the courtroom because they did not want to taint the jury by showing him in restraints.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that people on trial can be shackled in front of the jury, but only if prosecutors have a strong argument for it. Prosecutors could very well have won that argument in Nichols' case because of the knives.

Nichols apparently took Hall's gun from a lockbox, using her keys, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday. Officers normally remove their guns when transporting inmates because of the possibility that the prisoner will grab the weapon from the holster.

The newspaper also reported that a courthouse surveillance camera recorded the attack on Hall, but no one in the control center noticed.

The episode points to the need for a national courthouse security standard similar to what keeps federal courthouses secure, said Howard Safir, a former operations chief for the U.S. Marshals Service and chairman of SafirRosetti Security Co.

Safir said that in federal courthouses, "you're not going to put a large prisoner with a violent history and with a history of having been found with weapons alone with someone virtually half his size."

Federal security agents analyze an inmate's threat potential and take appropriate security measures. A series of locks and other safeguards prevent unauthorized people from getting into a judge's chambers and then into the courtroom, Safir said.

In Nichols' case, Hazen said the judge had expressed worries about his client - but the concern was directed more at the lawyer than the judge.

"As we were walking out, he put his hand on my right shoulder and said, `Be careful,'" Hazen said.


Associated Press reporters Eliott C. McLaughlin and Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
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