Jury considers death penalty for Nichols

ATLANTA - Prosecutors urged a jury Wednesday to deliver a death sentence to a gunman convicted of escaping custody and murdering four people in a courthouse shooting spree, warning that otherwise he would spend the rest of his life searching for ways to escape and kill again.

The jury last week found Brian Nichols guilty of all 54 counts against him including murder in the March 2005 shootings that left a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent dead. He had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming he was gripped by a delusional compulsion that he was a slave rebelling against authority.

The trial's sentencing phase began Wednesday and could last through Thanksgiving. The jury will hear witness testimony from both sides before deciding whether to sentence Nichols to life in prison or send him to his death.

Prosecutor Kellie Hill urged jurors to return a capital punishment sentence, saying 'he is still planning and he is still dangerous.'

Nichols has already been implicated in an escape plot. Authorities say Nichols attempted to enlist his pen-pal girlfriend, a paralegal, and at least two sheriff's deputies in a scheme to break out of the Fulton County Jail.

Hill read a letter Nichols wrote urging an alleged cohort to 'channel all of your emotions into that first punch.' For the first time, she revealed to jurors that guards this summer found paperclips under loose, jagged tiles in his cell that could be used to unlock handcuffs.

'The evidence will show that he will not stop trying to escape - and he is willing to kill as many people as necessary for his freedom,' she said. 'The evidence will show a sentence of life without parole will give this defendant exactly what he wants: The rest of his life to plan to escape - and kill.'

Defense attorneys conceded that state laws allow the jury to sentence Nichols to death, but they urged the panelists to probe his background to determine whether execution is the right punishment. Henderson Hill asked them to determine 'whether or not killing Mr. Nichols is the only appropriate way to secure our community.'