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Posted: November 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Jury considers death penalty for courthouse gunman

ATLANTA -- Prosecutors urged a jury Wednesday to deliver a death sentence to a gunman convicted of escaping custody and murdering four people in a courthouse shooting spree, warning that otherwise he would spend the rest of his life searching for ways to escape and kill again.

The jury last week found Brian Nichols guilty of all 54 counts against him including murder in the March 2005 shootings that left a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent dead. He had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming he was gripped by a delusional compulsion that he was a slave rebelling against authority.

The trial's sentencing phase began Wednesday and could last through Thanksgiving. The jury will hear witness testimony from both sides before deciding whether to sentence Nichols to life in prison or send him to his death.

Prosecutor Kellie Hill urged jurors to return a capital punishment sentence, saying "he is still planning and he is still dangerous."

Nichols has already been implicated in an escape plot. Authorities say Nichols attempted to enlist his pen-pal girlfriend, a paralegal, and at least two sheriff's deputies in a scheme to break out of the Fulton County Jail.

Hill read a letter Nichols wrote urging an alleged cohort to "channel all of your emotions into that first punch." For the first time, she revealed to jurors that guards this summer found paperclips under loose, jagged tiles in his cell that could be used to unlock handcuffs.

"The evidence will show that he will not stop trying to escape - and he is willing to kill as many people as necessary for his freedom," she said. "The evidence will show a sentence of life without parole will give this defendant exactly what he wants: The rest of his life to plan to escape - and kill."

Defense attorneys conceded that state laws allow the jury to sentence Nichols to death, but they urged the panelists to probe his background to determine whether execution is the right punishment. Henderson Hill asked them to determine "whether or not killing Mr. Nichols is the only appropriate way to secure our community."

Nichols was being escorted to a downtown Atlanta courtroom where he was being tried for rape when he beat a deputy guarding him, stole her gun and went on the shooting spree. He killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau and Deputy Hoyt Teasley in a 12-minute span and then fled to the busy street outside the courthouse.

He escaped the city in a stolen car and managed to evade hundreds of police officers searching for him through the night. He headed for Atlanta's posh Buckhead neighborhood, where he shot and killed federal agent David Wilhelm outside the house he was renovating.

He was captured the next day after a woman he took hostage, Ashley Smith Robinson, alerted police of his whereabouts. Smith Robinson soon was credited with bringing a peaceful ending to the rampage by, in her account, appealing to his religious beliefs and giving him illegal drugs from her hidden stash.


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