Criminal defense lawyers in Atlanta are like those throughout the country, I suspect. We enjoy our work, are a bit clubby and territorial, and for the most part pay attention to high profile cases, even when we are not ourselves involved in the matter.
Most people know about the case against Brian Nichols, a man accused of shooting a judge, court reporter, guard and others during a rampage in and near the Fulton County Superior Courthouse a couple of years back. There have been a variety of problems in the case, ranging from the lack of funding for the defense team, squabbles over the location of the trial, and finally, the judge’s decision to step down after he was quoted as saying that everybody knew that the defendant did the crime. A new judge was appointed just this past week.
The Fulton County Daily Report, a local paper for lawyers, did a recent piece on how the new judge might handle the case. The Daily Report quoted me as saying that most new judges would want to familiarize themselves with what happened so far, and that “clever” lawyers would try to re-visit earlier rulings by repackaging previous arguments. Several other lawyers were quoted about other aspects of having a judge replaced in the middle of a high profile case.
The Brian Nichols case teaches a number of lessons. First, and perhaps foremost, there seems to be an almost direct inverse relationship between publicity and justice. The glare of publicity seems to impact how the court system handles a case. The more publicity, the less likely that the case will get handled like all other cases.
A second lesson from the Nichols case is that death penalty prosecutions are extremely difficult to handle, from the defense side, from the prosecution perspective, and from the point of view of the judge. Our lawyers here at Kish & Lietz handled a very high profile death penalty case a few years back, along with a number of other lawyers. The need to keep our plea negotiations secret made it extremely difficult to do our jobs. We were able to keep the press unaware of our attempts to strike a plea bargain, but not without difficulty. We knew that in some cases, publicity can get in the way of achieving a good result for our client.
Another lesson from the Nichols case is that good lawyers cost money. While there has been a lot of talk about excessive defense costs, we all need to remember two things: 1) you get what you pay for, and 2) good defense lawyers need to respond to evidence presented by the prosecution. If the prosecutors wanted to keep the case simple, they had that option all along, and could have saved the taxpayers a lot of money.
The Nichols case is something we criminal defense attorneys talk about, even when we are not involved. In many ways, it’s like a car wreck: horrible, but impossible to look away from when you pass by.