Hill and his team work out of an office in the Capital Defenders’ headquarters, in downtown Atlanta, in a mock courtroom that is normally used for training. The prosecution has indicated that it may call as many as four hundred witnesses, and in Hill’s office are twenty-seven black binders, spanning eight feet of floor space, containing witness statements and other evidence gathered by the district attorney. The prosecution has also produced more than forty thousand pages of other material, and there are more than four hundred hours of tapes of telephone calls that Nichols has made from jail. On the wall are twenty sheets of yellow paper, each one representing a location relevant to the case. ***
Nichols was prepared to plead guilty to every count in the indictment and accept a sentence of life in prison if Howard agreed to abandon his quest for the death penalty.
Howard said no. As an elected official, he had little to lose by taking a hard line against one of the most notorious criminals in the country. The long wait to bring Nichols to trial has been frustrating for Howard, who works in an office in the old courthouse, five floors beneath the murder scene. Defending his decision to reject Hill’s plea offer, Howard told me, “My belief is that punishment is a question that should be decided by the community. It is not appropriate to kill four people and outline for the citizens what his punishment should be. I don’t think the defendant should choose his own punishment.” ***
Florida caps legal fees in death-penalty cases at fifteen thousand dollars, and South Carolina and Oklahoma allocate twenty-five thousand. Expenses for experts, however, often push the total cost in those states to six figures; in Georgia the average death-penalty defense costs about three hundred thousand dollars, and so it is not surprising that a case as complicated as Nichols’s has cost a great deal more. ***
Last month, Fulton County allocated a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars for a psychiatric evaluation of Nichols and for other defense experts, but the standoff over the other costs of his defense remains unresolved. On January 18th, the Georgia council asked Judge Fuller to assign the case back to the state Capital Defenders. Hill would not comment, but Stephen Bright, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, called the move “a gross violation of the right to counsel.” Both Judge Fuller and Nichols’s defense team have argued that changing lawyers at this point would violate Nichols’s rights. Ironically, the refusal of state authorities to continue to pay Nichols’s legal fees has only increased the chances that he will avoid the death penalty. (“If this case was properly funded, it would have been over a year ago,” Fuller told me.) And, in the meantime, the Georgia council’s financial problems are beginning to affect other trials. In November, a judge in a murder case in rural Pike County removed two private attorneys because the council could no longer afford to pay them.