Georgia judge under fire for $1 million defense bill in death penalty trial

Things have now gotten ugly in the ongoing controversy over the death penalty trial for Brian Nichols in Atlanta, Georgia. Yesterday, Judge Craig Schwall called Judge Hilton Fuller, the judge presiding over the Nichols circus, a “fool” and a “disgrace” for his handling of the Nichols case. The email was provided by an unknown source to the Fulton County Daily Report, and the story was later covered by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Here is an excerpt of the email –

“He [Judge Fuller] is a disgrace and pulling all of us down. He is single handedly destroying the bench and indigent defense and eroding the public trust in the judiciary. … Surely he can be replaced. He is a fool. … We should investigate if it can be done.”

Nichols, as you may recall, is charged with the murders of a Fulton County judge, his court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent in March 2005. Nichols went on a rampage when he escaped from custody during his rape trial (he didn’t like the way it was going). In the process, Nichols killed one of the best judges in the state (who, ironically, was probably the fairest and most merciful judge Nichols could have drawn in Georgia).

Judge Schwall has never been one to mince words. In response, the Fulton County Superior Court judges issued a joint statement that ““One judge does not speak for the entire court, however Judge Schwall’s frustrations are shared by a great many, including some members of the Fulton judiciary.” In defense of Judge Fuller, one senior Fulton County judge, a lifelong friend of the judge, was quoted this afternoon in the Atlanta Journal Constitution calling Schwall’s remark “very injudicious” and “inappropriate” considering the possible effect on the proceedings.

There are a lot of people frustrated by this case. Many public defenders and attorneys in Georgia have criticized the excessive spending on Nichols’ defense lawyers because there are thousands of indigent defendants in dire need of the money that is being spent on defending Brian Nichols. But Nichols’ lawyers keep asking for more. It’s hard to understand because most Georgia criminal lawyers that have successfully defended death penalty cases have done so for less than a third of the money spent on the lawyers defending Nichols. And in most of those cases there was actually a defense to the charges that had to be investigated and presented in court.

Judge Fuller has even tried to get Fulton County or the Georgia Legislature to pay more money to Nichols’ lawyers. The response from the legislature was probably not what the judge hoped for. The Speaker of the Georgia Legislature has created a panel to consider impeaching the judge. I’m not sure if they can actually impeach him (that’s usually a matter for the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Georgia Supreme Court), but the creation of this panel certainly sends a message that the legislature is opposed to spending taxpayer money like “a drunken sailor on shore leave.” (The Speaker’s words, not mine.)

Death penalty cases are expensive, and the appeals can last decades. That’s one of the reasons many people oppose the death penalty. But $1 million for defense lawyers BEFORE THE TRIAL HAS EVEN STARTED is clearly ridiculous and an insult to Georgia taxpayers. It is also insulting to the very talented and successful criminal lawyers who fight these cases in trial courts every day for much less money. And it is a constitutional crisis for the thousands of other defendants in Georgia prisons and jails who need qualified counsel to defend them.

I don’t know where it will end. But like so many other people in Georgia, I just hope it ends soon.

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