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Brian Nichols Returns To Court

A rape defendant accused of killing a judge and three others during and after his escape from the downtown courthouse pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder charges that could bring the death penalty.

At the brief hearing, Brian Nichols, 33, was polite and soft-spoken, answering routine questions from Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller.

His lawyer entered a not guilty plea for him in the 54-count indictment issued earlier this month. Nichols is charged with murder, kidnapping, escape and other counts.

As with previous hearings in the case, there was extra security at the hearing Tuesday, held in the same Fulton County Courthouse complex as the March 11 shootings. Several plainclothes officers sat in the row behind Nichols.

Relatives of the victims and Nichols' parents were present in the courtroom. None spoke with reporters afterward. Prosecutors and defense lawyers also declined to comment.

Motion hearings will be held next month in neighboring DeKalb County, and defense lawyers will be seeking to have a gag order issued and to have the Fulton County District Attorney's Office barred from handling the prosecution.

Nichols was on trial on a rape charge at the time of the shootings and allegedly overpowered a deputy, stole her gun and opened fire in the courtroom where the trial was to resume.

A judge and court reporter were killed inside a courtroom, a sheriff's deputy was killed outside and a federal agent was killed later north of downtown. Nichols was arrested in suburban Gwinnett County on March 12.

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