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Lawyers: Court security extensive

Despite measures, defendant escapes after killing three

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Authorities search for a suspect after a judge is fatally shot.

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Atlanta (Georgia)
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The shooting spree that started in an Atlanta courtroom, killing a judge and two others on Friday, occurred despite security measures common in courtrooms across Georgia and the United States, according to lawyers familiar with the incident.

Howard Weintraub, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta and now a criminal defense lawyer, said he doesn't think security personnel could have done anything differently.

"Fulton County [courthouse] to me is as secure as any in the state, more secure than many," he said in a telephone interview.

The suspect, 33-year-old Brian Nichols, was being retried for rape and kidnapping in Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes' courtroom. Nichols took a gun from a sheriff's deputy before shooting and killing Barnes and a court reporter, police said.

The suspect fled the eighth-floor courtroom, shot and killed a deputy outside the building and carjacked several vehicles while making his escape, officials said. Police were still searching for him Friday night.

Barnes told attorneys Thursday that he was concerned Nichols could pose a danger if he were convicted, the suspect's attorney said. (Full story)

The judge pledged to bolster security for the remainder of the trial after a sheriff's deputy Wednesday found makeshift weapons in Nichols' shoes.

Fulton County Superior Court officials were not available for comment, but some lawyers who practice in the courthouse said there are extensive security measures in place to prevent such attacks.

"Their security is as strict as that at the airport," said B.J. Bernstein, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta told CNN.

Weintraub said the courthouse is equipped with electronic locks to secure the judicial chambers. Judges also have a "kick bar" below the bench at their feet to alert law enforcement in case of an incident. One or two sheriff's deputies are also on duty in most courtrooms, Weintraub said.

It is unclear exactly how Nichols got the weapon from the deputy. Gun holsters used by sheriff's deputies have safeguards to prevent a weapon from being removed, said a spokesman for Smyrna Police Distributors, in Georgia, which sells the holsters.

Nichols was reportedly not shackled. The treatment of defendants in courtrooms is at the discretion of judges, and defendants may only be handcuffed or restrained if a judge deems it necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that people on trial can be shackled, but only if prosecutors have a strong argument for it.

Nichols had been allowed to change from jail scrubs into street clothes, a normal occurrence when defendants face jurors.

Some thought security in the courtroom was too lax.

"I was a deputy sheriff and a police officer for 13 years," said Dennis Scheib, an Atlanta lawyer. "The security in the courthouse, the way they deal with prisoners, is absolutely atrocious ... I've spoken to judges, DA, deputies up there, and said this is what's going on."

However, Bernstein cautioned against overreacting.

"We need to be careful that we don't go over too far and give too much credence to something that is fairly drastic like shackling everyone that comes into the courtroom," she said.

Bernstein added that many attacks occur during civil trials, such as divorce or child custody cases, instead of criminal cases.

Some speculated that this incident would force judges to reconsider whether weapons should be allowed in court. While the public is prohibited from carrying firearms or weapons into courtrooms, many jurisdictions allow law enforcement and even judges to carry weapons.

"Whether an officer should have a weapon when entering a court facility is a very controversial subject," according to the National Center for State Courts. "Each court is required to establish a local rule to determine what weapon policy best suits their court facility."

The presence of guns in the courtroom has not always been as common as it is today, said Judge Lee Sinclair of the Stark County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court. He said judges need security training but said some already carry guns into their courtrooms beneath their robes.

"Ten years ago, no one would have thought about that," he said. "You have seen that increase."

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