Judge, Two Others Fatally Shot at Atlanta Courthouse

Deputy Wounded; Authorities Search for Suspect


ATLANTA (March 11) - A judge presiding over a rape trial was shot to death Friday along with two other people at the Fulton County Courthouse, authorities said. A fourth person was critically wounded and a search was under way for the suspect, the defendant in the trial.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor confirmed that Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and his court reporter were killed. He gave no other details in announcing the deaths in the state Senate. A deputy died later at a hospital, authorities said.

Witnesses said the gunman carjacked a car and authorities were searching for a green Honda Accord that was hijacked from a newspaper reporter.

Fulton County Sheriff's Lt. Clarence Huber identified the suspect as 33-year-old Brian Nichols, who was on trial on rape and other charges stemming from an incident in August.

It was not immediately known how the suspect got a gun, but county employee Ali Lamei said he was told by officers that the prisoner grabbed a sheriff's sergeant's gun while he was being escorted.

''We heard some noise. It sounded like three or four shots. At the time, we thought it was just an engine backfiring,'' said Chuck Cole, a civil defense attorney who was in an adjoining parking deck when he heard gunfire at around 9:10 a.m.

Barnes was hearing civil cases at the time of the shooting, and Nichols' trial was set to resume in the afternoon, district attorney's office spokesman Erik Friedly said.

After Nichols obtained the gun, ''it's my understanding he made his way into the courtroom on his own,'' Friedly said. It's not unusual for defendants to be brought to the courthouse in the morning to wait in a holding area for sessions later in the day, he said.

A sheriff's deputy died at Grady Hospital of a wound to the abdomen and a second, a woman, was being treated for a head wound, hospital officials said. She was in critical condition but expected to survive, they said.

''I saw one person on the street that they were performing CPR on,'' said court reporter Amy McKee.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom staff was told that Don O'Briant, a features reporter for the paper, was beaten by the suspect and carjacked outside the courthouse. Mike King, an editorial board member for the paper, said O'Briant was taken to Grady.

All the judges in the building were locked in their chambers. The courthouse and other buildings in downtown Atlanta were on lockdown. Schools around the area were also on lockdown.

Traffic in the blocks surrounding the courthouse was backed up as police cruisers flooded the area looking for the suspect. More than 2 1/2 hours after the shooting, the suspect remained at large.

James Bailey, a juror at Nichols' trial, said the jury was not in the courtroom at the time of the shooting. Bailey said Nichols had made him and other jurors nervous. ''Every time he looked up, he was staring at you,'' Bailey said. He said Barnes was the presiding judge.

Barnes was named to the Fulton County Superior Court bench in 1998.

Among cases he handled was the fatal 2003 car wreck by hockey star Dany Heatley that killed 25-year-old teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley pleaded guilty and was sentenced Feb. 4 to three years on probation and ordered to give 150 speeches about the dangers of speeding.

Barnes, 64, also drew attention last month when he took the unusual step of ordering a mother of seven who pleaded guilty to killing her 5-week-old daughter to undergo a medical procedure that would prevent her from having more children.

The shooting happened 11 days after the husband and elderly mother of a federal judge in Chicago were shot to death in her home. A man whose medical malpractice lawsuit was dismissed by the judge committed suicide and left a note saying he was the killer.