Atlanta incident draws attention to courthouse security

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Lawrence County Courthouse averages 17,000 visitors a month, close to 250,000 people each year. They come to pay property taxes, obtain marriage licenses, talk to county commissioners and attend court proceedings.

Some leave satisfied, others angry. Wherever there are people with gut-level issues, a potential for conflict exists.

Never was this more evident than last Friday when a Georgia man, Brian Nichols, who was to stand trial for rape allegedly went on a rampage at the Fulton County, Ga., Courthouse, killing three and injuring two before escaping.

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Nichols was a fugitive for more than 24 hours, killing a fourth person and taking another hostage before finally turning himself in to authorities.

As the Atlanta area mourns its dead and ponders what might have been done differently, law enforcement and judicial agencies across the country agree lessons can be learned from what happened.

"I think there will be a lot of training issues and a lot of critiquing that comes about as a result of this," Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said. "It's an unfortunate, sad thing that took place."

Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Richard Walton, who oversees courthouse security, along with fellow Judge Frank McCown, said a review of

procedures at the Lawrence County Courthouse takes place regularly.

But the Atlanta incident was the impetus to move up the schedule for the latest review.

"We had it Monday morning with both judges and the court security personnel," Walton said.

Here and there

Security measures in Lawrence County differ from those in Atlanta.

In accordance with Georgia state law, handcuffs were taken off Nichols while he waited for trial in a side room near the courtroom, giving him the opportunity to take a gun away from the deputy who guarded him.

In Lawrence County, handcuffs are removed only as the accused is led through the door of the courtroom before the jury is seated.

Shackles (around the ankles) are not removed unless the accused is to testify and must get up and walk to the witness stand in front of the jury.

The Georgia gunman was apparently not wearing any shackles as he waited to be taken into the courtroom for trial.

Lawrence County prisoners are not ushered through the general population when entering and exiting a courtroom, and are kept isolated, handcuffed and shackled before and after a court appearance.

Sexton said he is concerned about reports that authorities in Fulton County had confiscated two hand made shanks from the Atlanta gunman the day before his rampage. A prisoner who has shown a propensity for procurring weapons should have prompted closer scrutiny and tighter security, Sexton said.

"That should have raised red flags, right there," he said.

A trip to court

Lawrence County's courthouse security system, which includes armed constables, metal detectors, X-ray machines and a closed circuit camera system, was put in place in the 1990s at the request of the two Common Pleas Court judges.

Ralph Peters has been a courthouse constable for five years. In those five years, Peters has seen all sorts collected from visitors: pocket knives, multi-tools, large fingernail files.

"This one guy came in one time and he had a little pipe you smoke pot with," Peters said.

"With most men, it's a pocket knife," fellow constable Kenny Hileman said.

The way it used to be

Think it can't happen here? Walton might beg to differ. He recalled several incidents that have taken place over the years before security was installed, some of which had the potential to be deadly.

In the 1970s, it was common for courtrooms to be unlocked throughout the day. People who wanted to travel in and out of courtrooms only had to open the door and those rooms were unattended during lunch hours and before and after trials.

"During the lunch hour the bailiff walked in the courtroom and saw something hanging down from underneath

a seat. He looked and found a knife taped under the chair and he removed it," Walton said.

These days, courtroom doors are kept locked unless court is in session. No one is allowed in the courtrooms otherwise.

Walton remembered another instance where a juvenile was tried as an adult for killing his step-father, years ago before metals detectors and X-ray machines were installed.

"The jury came back with a guilty verdict and as we left, his mother and grandmother came back late from lunch and weren't in the courtroom when the verdict was read," Walton recalled. "The grandma passed out when she found out her grandson was convicted. She was found to have a gun in her purse."