Friday, April 08, 2005


Atlanta Courthouse Murders - Sheriff Ducks on Key Issues

Link > Metro > Atlanta

Sheriff dodges fault in killings

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
> Published on: 04/08/05
Fulton County sheriff's officials admitted under questioning Thursday that they knew Judge Rowland Barnes' chambers were not secure before an escaped prisoner gunned him down in his own courtroom.

But Sheriff Myron Freeman, who is responsible for courthouse security, took little responsiblity for circumstances that led to the March 11 shooting spree that killed Barnes, his court reporter and a sheriff's deputy.

Brian Nichols is accused of overpowering the 51-year-old female deputy guarding him, taking her keys and gun and walking through the courthouse complex to Barnes' office, where he took several people hostage. He then entered the courtroom where he shot the judge and court reporter Julie Brandau, police said. Next, authorities said, Nichols bolted down eight flights of stairs to the street, where he killed Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, the only sheriff's deputy in pursuit of him at that point.

A summary and timeline attached to a three-inch-thick report mentions that the attack on the woman deputy was caught by a security camera, but no one was looking at the video screen at the time. The deputy who was taken hostage in the judge's chambers feigned a heart attack and managed to press a silent alarm, but no one responded until a deputy in the control room had called back three times to check on the condition of the downed officer.

In the intervening moments, the judge and the court reporter were shot.

In a letter summarizing the report on the incident, Sheriff Freeman said his department's response after the assault of the deputy guarding Nichols was "exemplary." But he avoided expressing any judgment on Sheriff's Department actions or procedures that might have led to the security breach in the first place.

"I think I was most struck by what was not here," Fulton County Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel said Thursday. "Clearly, there's a lack of accountability. For this report to convey that nothing went wrong on March 11 is troubling."

"Even to this day," she said, "the same people overseeing courthouse security then are overseeing courthouse security now — and that's disconcerting."

Some see little new

The sheriff has been reluctant to speak about the March 11 events, and at a news conference Thursday he again said little.

In some instances, he declined to respond directly to questions and stood to the side with his hands clasped. His chief deputy, Michael Cooke, would step in to answer.

Cooke acknowledged that Barnes' chambers were not secure and that was known well before March 11.

"We understand there was a practice of not locking that door," he said.

But that fact was not mentioned in the report, nor was anything that happened before Deputy Cynthia Hall was attacked at 8:49 that Friday morning.

Judge Hilton Fuller, who will preside over Nichols' trial on charges of killing the three people at the courthouse and a federal agent in Buckhead as the gunman eluded a massive manhunt, is to decide today whether to make the rest of the sheriff's report public. The report includes transcripts of interviews with witnesses, mostly sheriff's office employees.

Within hours of the courthouse shootings, Freeman promised an internal investigation of what went wrong.

Some court officials were reluctant to criticize Freeman and the findings of his office, stressing that they wanted to "cooperate."

"I don't think we have enough, yet, to know anything more than we already knew," Court Administrator Judith Cramer said.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Manis said, "Nothing in the report comes as a surprise. We're looking forward to the judges' independent study."

Fulton County judges are selecting outside experts to conduct an assessment of courthouse security.

Danny Porter, district attorney in Gwinnett County, where Nichols surrendered March 12, questioned why Freeman didn't scrutinize his own policies.

"It's pretty clear there were individual acts of courage and heroism, but if the sheriff says no policies were violated, then, given what I know about the case, they need to take a hard look at his policies," Porter said. "I think you have to look at what went wrong to know where your problems lie."

One practice that has been questioned repeatedly is allowing one deputy to be alone with a prisoner suspected of a violent felony.

Cooke said the department's policy allows one deputy to escort up to four prisoners at a time. He said Hall had escorted Nichols to the courtrom several times previously without incident. The report mentioned no changes to that policy.

Freeman had initially promised his report last Friday, but moved the deadline to Wednesday. Then the sheriff asked Judge Fuller whether it should be made public. Fuller sealed the report until he could review it. He kept the seal on the witness interviews, but released the summary Thursday.

"This office is not used to conducting criminal investigations," Freeman said, reading from a prepared statement. The county attorney's office helped conduct the inquiry. Its lawyers would be responsible for defending the county's actions against any lawsuits that might be brought.

"The courthouse is much safer today than it was March 11," Freeman said when asked what shortcomings his investigation found.

He conceded that the report did not single out any security failings.

The portions of the report released Thursday did give a glimpse of what occurred during the critical minutes at the courthouse that morning. Almost all of the details disclosed from the report had already been reported in the media in the days just after the slayings.

Narrative, not analysis

"This is a play-by-play narrative," said Robert Friedmann, a Georgia State University criminal justice professor and an expert on security. "This is not really what helps us understand what procedures were followed, what procedures were not followed and how an incident like this would be prevented in the future."

The report begins with 8:49 a.m., when Deputy Hall escorted Nichols to a holding cell so he could change from his jail jumpsuit into street clothes for his appearance in Judge Barnes' court, where he was being tried for allegedly raping his former girlfriend.

From there, the sheriff's office's report gives a minute-by-minute accounting, with the notation that the "times are approximate." The timeline ends with a beaten and unconscious Hall being discovered — 21 minutes later — lying on the floor in the holding cell where she had been overpowered.

The report does not note when or how the prisoner got Hall's weapon, though it does refer to his using it to force another deputy, Grantley White, to give up his weapon and to handcuff other hostages in the judge's office.

Sheriff's officials have said Nichols used Hall's keys to retrieve her weapon from a lockbox. Freeman said the lockboxes now require a combination rather than a key to open.

The report mentions that two days before the shootings, Nichols had been caught with pieces of metal in his shoes that could have been used as weapons.

But the sheriff's department took no action beyond writing a report because "Nichols had posed no serious threat and had exhibited no other signs which might lead to trouble."

Cooke and Freeman also noted that one deputy was assigned to watch 52 video screens showing scenes from around the courthouse. It was understandable, sheriff's officials said, that that deputy missed seeing Hall being shoved into an area not covered by the cameras.

"The assault we caught on camera was three- or four-tenths of a second" on the screen, Chief Deputy Cooke said. "Several individuals could have been in there watching those cameras and not captured it."

Yet, sheriff's officials said, the deputy on duty in the control room, Paul Tamer, responded quickly to distress alarms that soon followed. At 8:58 a.m., Tamer tried three times in one minute to raise White by radio, the report said. Meanwhile Teasley, who was outside the control room, left to investigate the alarm that came from Barnes' courtroom in an adjoining building, the report said. Tamer tried to raise White by radio a fourth time, still getting no response, according to the report.

Yet Cooke said, "There was no lapse in response time. Period."

The interviews still under seal by the judge were with 33 people, all but one of them employees of the sheriff's department.

Too shaken to talk

Freeman and Cooke said the court employees who were taken hostage in Barnes' office declined to be interviewed for their report. "There were a host of individuals that declined," Cooke said. "This is still very emotional for some."

Porter, the Gwinnett district attorney, responded with incredulity to the suggestion that sheriff's investigators could not get some court employees to talk to them because the sheriff lacked authority to subpoena them.

"That's just an excuse," Porter said. "I'm sure witnesses have talked to Atlanta police or investigators with the district attorney's office. The sheriff should be able to get access to those interviews."

Cramer said the court workers were on medical leave and some were undergoing "trauma counseling."

"They were worn out physically and emotionally and asked to not be made to come in," the court administrator said.

Freeman said he will name a task force on Monday, a month after the shooting, to do a security review. The sheriff said it has taken a month to put that group together because commitments from outside agencies was slow in coming.

"The bigger issues are accountability and where we go from here," Handel said. "And those two things are missing. I would like to see a greater urgency."

I'll tell you what went wrong. Atlanta has become a monument to Affirmative Action, and in doing so, employed security forces that were there not so much for their qualifications as for their race and gender. Helen Keller could see what's going on here.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?