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On trial in Atlanta: Cost of justice

Georgia's death penalty cases are on hold as state, judge wrangle over $1.8 million price tag for defending Brian Nichols.

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Can you put a price tag on justice? That's what the state of Georgia is trying to decide.

Two years ago, in an effort to eradicate its "Cool Hand Luke" reputation, the state reformed its public-defender system, replacing it with a centralized model that was designed to give indigent defendants in murder cases a quality defense. Now, that model is being strained to the breaking point by one high-profile case.

The defense team for Brian Nichols has spent $1.8 million so far – nearly half the state's entire annual public-defender budget – and say they need more money. (By comparison, the state prosecutor has spent $5 million – in a case where the accused confessed and several of the murders were caught on tape.)

As a result of what it claims are outrageous costs, the state is refusing to pay the defense team and the judge in the case is threatening a state office with contempt of court. Meanwhile, not only the Nichols case, but all of the state's nearly 80 other death penalty cases have ground to a halt.

"It's a challenge because many people in leadership positions have been very concerned over the tremendously escalating costs of this one case," says state Rep. David Ralston (R) of Blue Ridge, co-chair of Georgia's House Judiciary Committee. "So we're asking ourselves: Where is the system going to be when the Brian Nichols case is finally over some day?"

Mr. Nichols made national headlines in 2005 when he escaped from an Atlanta courtroom where he was on trial for rape – in the process allegedly shooting a judge, a deputy, and a court reporter. He later allegedly killed an off-duty federal agent and took a woman hostage in nearby Duluth. The woman convinced Mr. Nichols to give himself up after sharing drugs with him and reading to him from the bestselling self-help book "A Purpose-Driven Life."

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