ATLANTA — The judge presiding over the death penalty case of a man accused in a notorious courthouse shooting stepped down Wednesday after being quoted in a magazine article as having said of the defendant, "Everyone in the world knows he did it."
Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller Jr. told local media outlets Tuesday that he did not recall making the statement to a reporter for the New Yorker magazine. On Wednesday, though, he recused himself from the case, saying it was vital that the defendant, Brian Nichols, was perceived as having a fair trial.
"Judicial impartiality, real and perceived, is a critical element of the trial process," Fuller wrote in a formal order of voluntary recusal. "In light of recent media reports, I am no longer hopeful that I can provide a trial perceived to be fair to both state and the accused."
Fuller, a retired DeKalb County judge who agreed to preside over Nichols' trial after all the judges in Fulton County recused themselves, has found himself at the center of a protracted legal and political battle over the cost of an adequate death penalty defense.
Nichols, 36, is accused of escaping from an Atlanta courthouse in March 2005 and killing a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent.
Last year, Fuller suspended the trial indefinitely after the state public defender's office, faced with legislative budget cuts, stopped paying Nichols' lawyers. Fuller was branded a "fool" by a fellow judge, and sued by the district attorney in the state's Supreme Court.
The defense costs, which had risen to $1.8 million last summer, have seemed excessive to some Georgians, who say the evidence of Nichols' guilt is overwhelming: Not only did people witness the shootings, but a surveillance camera in a parking garage captured Nichols fleeing the scene. Nichols is also alleged to have confessed to a hostage and police.
Yet, even with witnesses and alleged confessions, legal experts note that Nichols is not necessarily guilty of first-degree murder. Attorneys for Nichols, who has pleaded not guilty, plan to use a mental-health defense.
"That's their only defense, because everyone in the world knows he did it," Fuller was quoted as saying in the article by Jeffrey Toobin, posted on the New Yorker's website and dated Feb. 4.