Defense: Nichols funding is under threat

ATLANTA - Saying they were out of money, lawyers for Brian Nichols on Monday demanded the state pick up the tab for the alleged courthouse shooter.

In a court filing on Monday, Nichols' defense team said they are being asked to defend a high-profile client with just 30 percent of the budget they need, while the prosecution is overflowing with taxpayer-funded lawyers and law enforcement agents.

'On the eve of the trial, the defense is being asked by the state of Georgia to mount a defense without resources while the prosecution has a veritable war chest of funding and services, aided by the federal government, well-positioned for jury selection and for trial,' the defense motion said.

The motion also sought to block the state of Georgia from interfering in the case. The defense noted that the state recently moved to remove or fire court-appointed counsel in several death penalty cases in Georgia.

Nichols' lawyers said they are not deserting their client, but they cannot provide an adequate defense with the funds they are being provided by the state. Already, they said they have racked up $75,000 in outstanding bills for things like experts and trial preparation.

Funding has become a constant sticking point in the Nichols case and it seems that it will again delay his death penalty trial from getting under way. Jury selection was set to begin next Monday, but instead Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller has said he will meet with the lawyers that day. Jury selection could begin some time after that.

The state is staggering under huge defense costs in the Nichols case. Estimates have said the final price tag could reach $2.4 million, far exceeding the costs of a regular death penalty case. Nichols' attorneys have so far billed more than $1.8 million for fees and expenses.

The funding crunch has left the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which pays the bills in the Nichols case, in turmoil. The council has had to slash its budget in part to absorb the high costs of Nichols' defense.

The defense motion filed on Monday blasted the council, suggesting that it came close to 'extortion' when it told the defense team that unless it agreed to handle the case on 30 percent of the needed budget it could not guarantee the funds would be available at all.

The defense motion also accused the state Legislature of deliberately withholding money from the public defender system. 'The intent and effect of that wholly manufactured crisis was aimed directly at Mr. Nichols and his attorneys,' it said.

Nichols was in the courtroom for Monday's hearing amid tight security as prosecutors requested a gag order. At one point Fuller asked him if he had any concerns about his legal representation.

'Not at the moment your honor,' he replied.

Shortly after the hearing, Fuller denied the request, saying that defense attorneys have an 'almost unblemished cooperation of counsel to eliminate improper comments.'

Nichols is facing the death penalty for a deadly 2005 rampage at the downtown courthouse in Atlanta. Authorities say he was being escorted to a courtroom in the Fulton County Courthouse for the continuation of his retrial in a rape case when he beat a deputy and stole her gun.

Nichols is accused of killing the judge presiding over the rape trial, a court reporter chronicling the proceeding, a sheriff's deputy who chased him outside and a federal agent he encountered at a home a few miles away.

Prosecutors say he took a woman hostage the next day in her Duluth home, then surrendered.