Judge Says Prosecution Drove Up Costs in Atlanta Courthouse Death Penalty Case

As TChris wrote last night, retired Georgia Judge Hilton Fuller, who once presided over the death penalty trial of accused Atlanta courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, spoke at an American Bar Association conference yesterday and said the prosecution in that case was responsible for driving the costs up.

The Nichols trial should be used to shine a light on how the prosecution's case affects the cost of an adequate defense in death penalty cases, Fuller told an American Bar Association panel on capital cases.

''There's a relationship between what the prosecution spends and what the defense needs,'' Fuller said.


Prosecutors presented a 54-count indictment, including four murders, for crimes that took place at 13 separate crime scenes, and they identified 487 witnesses, Fuller said.

Defense lawyers have an obligation to investigate what those witnesses would say at trial, Fuller said. But when state money to the defense team was cut off amid controversy over its $1.8 million bill and a state budget crunch, ''that investigation simply is not going to happen,'' Fuller said. ''Prosecutors could have proceeded with one or two counts. Ten witnesses could prove that case.''

In Nichols' case, the state cut off funds for the defense and Judge Fuller suspended the proceedings.

State lawmakers approved new measures this year to ban senior judges such as Fuller -- who do not face re-election -- from hearing death penalty cases. They also tightened the public defender system's budget.

Fuller said political pressure in a capital case is intense and rarely works in a defendant's favor. Yet judges have to ensure a fair proceeding, no matter how unpopular, he said.

Fuller's right, of course. One of the things I always appreciated about Judge Matsch who presided over the Timothy McVeigh/Terry Nichols' Oklahoma City bombing trials was that he approved virtually every defense request for funds. He knew and understood it was our obligation to investigate everything the Government alleged.

In the end, the Government spent $82 million investigating and prosecuting the OKC case while cost of McVeigh's defense was $15 million.

If you can't trust in the fairness of the trial, you can't trust in the integrity of the verdict. As the Supreme Court has said, "Death is different." When the Government seeks death, the ultimate punishment, we have a responsibility to ensure that the defendant has the ability to mount and prepare a full defense.

Good for Judge Fuller for calling out Georgia and the proseuction on this.

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