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Nichols case could be delayed as judge sets contempt hearing

ATLANTA - The trial of the man charged with killing four people in an attack that started inside a courthouse headed for a constitutional showdown Tuesday as a judge said he would consider holding the state public defender office in contempt over defense funding.

His patience wearing thin, Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller ordered the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to appear at a hearing next week to explain why it cut off funding for Brian Nichols' defense.

He's also threatened to order an indefinite delay of the trial if the council refuses to come up with more funding for the case soon.

The cash-strapped council, which is paying for defense costs in roughly 85 death penalty cases throughout Georgia, is responsible for Nichols' legal fees and expenses because he is indigent.

But because of the amount of money already spent on Nichols' defense so far - $1.8 million as of the end of June, according to the council - it insists there isn't enough money to go around. The legislature has refused to step in, and Fulton County has resisted helping pay for Nichols' defense costs.

Fuller disputes the council's figure, saying Nichols' defense costs have reached only $1.2 million. The council has stood by its figure, and it has pointed out that the average Georgia death penalty case costs the defender's office about $400,000.

'Our position hasn't changed,' Mack Crawford, director of the council, told The Associated Press on Tuesday in an exclusive interview. 'Our position is we can't afford to pay it. That's the only position we've had.'

Crawford said his office can only spend what it is appropriated.

'We statutorily have another 80 something cases that we've got a responsibility to the defendants and the courts to also manage,' he said.

The dispute has put in jeopardy a trial many observers have argued was a sure bet for a conviction and a death sentence. Prosecutors have a seemingly overwhelming case and public outrage on their side.

But even the judge in the case has said that without adequate defense funding, any conviction involving the March 11, 2005, shooting spree could be challenged.

'I'm not going to preside over a case that has major constitutional issues from the get-go,' Fuller said Monday.

All of this is happening as jury selection in Nichols' murder trial continues in the same courthouse complex where the rampage started.

Nichols' lawyers have complained repeatedly they have not been able to interview many witnesses and pay for some experts to testify for the defense. They also say the defense team hasn't been paid since July 1.

Fuller, meanwhile, has said he might delay the trial - which was already postponed several times because of defense funding woes - if the council refuses to come up with more funding.