Is there no situation so grave that it cannot be rendered into farce through the timely recitation of politically correct drivel? Recall Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s laughable assertion, put forth even as the rubble of the World Trade Center smoldered, that the flying public and America at large are threatened equally by 75-year-old white women and 25-year-old Arab men. Following in this sorry tradition is Paul Howard, district attorney for Fulton County, Ga.
Facing reporters after Brian Nichols’s homicidal rampage and escape from the Fulton County Courthouse, Howard was asked about the wisdom in having a lone female deputy sheriff escorting a large man accused of a violent sex crime. A sensible question, certainly, what with three people freshly murdered (a fourth soon would follow) and a madman now running loose on the streets of Atlanta. The gathered reporters and anyone watching on television might have anticipated a reasoned, thoughtful response, perhaps to include a call for the reevaluation of the relevant courthouse policies. Alas, no such response was forthcoming.
“I think that women are capable of doing anything that men are capable of doing,” Howard said. “And I don’t think it’s the weight, I think it’s the heart, the training, and the ability. I don’t think the weight has a whole lot to do with it.” In other words, if it were up to Mr. Howard, men accused of violent crimes would continue to be escorted through the courthouse hallways by female deputies half their size and twice their age. This is what passes for enlightened thinking in downtown Atlanta, where results, no matter how disastrous, count for less than one’s lofty intentions. Let the gutters run with blood, but we dare not show a lack of faith in our diminutive female police officers.
Let us now depart from the utopian fantasies of Paul Howard and turn our attention to the real world, where the typical man is stronger than the typical woman, and where no 100-pound woman, no matter how big her heart, how advanced her training, or how superior her ability, can go to Fist City with a 200-pound man and come out on top. Yes, it was a colossal blunder to leave Nichols under the supervision of a single female deputy, but it would be foolish to attribute Nichols’s escape simply to his escort’s sex and stature. It was complacency, that unseen killer of cops, that allowed Nichols to do what he did. He may well have pulled off the same feat had he been guarded by a man his own size or even larger, for Nichols had a plan, one he surely had worked out well in advance of putting it into action. The people guarding him, meanwhile, were merely going through the motions of their daily routine, moving the prisoners–the “bodies,” as they’re known in the argot of the courthouse–from the jail to the courtrooms and back again like so many widgets on an assembly line. Nothing bad happened yesterday, nothing bad will happen today.
But something bad had happened the day before, and it’s unconscionable that nothing was done about it. On March 10, the day before he escaped, Nichols was found in possession of two crudely fashioned knives, known to cops and cons alike as “shanks.” Prisoners can and do make shanks out of toothbrushes, plastic deodorant containers, pieces of their bunks, and just about anything else that can be melted or honed to a sharpened edge or point. It’s bad enough when a prisoner is found with a shank in his cell or in one of the jail’s common areas, but when he is found to be armed while in the “court line,” as was the case with Nichols, that can only signal an attempt to escape or to harm someone in the courtroom, either of which would justify such added security measures as shackles and extra bailiffs. Despite the recovery of these weapons from Nichols, nothing was done to ensure the safety of the courtroom staff the following day. Apparently, not even the female deputy whom Nichols attacked and overpowered was told of the potential threat. When you give a criminal an opportunity, don’t be surprised when he takes it.
Sadly, Paul Howard’s was not the only inane commentary on the Nichols matter. The cable-news channels were chockablock with talking-head attorneys who briefly turned their attentions from the momentous events of the Michael Jackson trial. Such is the demand for high-decibel discourse on these programs that the lawyers were paired off, prosecutors vs. defense attorneys, to all but scream at each other about Nichols’s case. “He should have been shacked,” the prosecutor says. “Rubbish,” answers the defense attorney, “he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence, and a defendant’s appearance in shackles is prejudicial.”
True, the Supreme Court has held that a defendant’s rights are violated if the jurors in his case see him bound in shackles or even dressed in his jailhouse garb. (Nichols was changing into his court clothes when he overpowered the deputy.) The solution to this is simple, and is practiced here in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Simply bring the shackled defendants into court while the jurors wait in the jury room. Once seated, the defendants can be secured with devices that immobilize them without being visible to jurors. When the jury enters, all they see is a meek and mild man holding a Bible and wearing in ill-fitting suit, not the snarling beast who has to be chained up to keep him from eating anyone who gets too close. For those especially stroppy types, there are even remotely operated stun belts that can be activated if the defendant starts to bare his fangs or come out of his chair.
What now of this presumption of innocence for Brian Nichols? Can a jury be found anywhere in Georgia who will not come to his next trial without some preconceived notions about him? I doubt it. And if no impartial jury can be found, what to do with him then?
Finally, there is the matter of the death penalty. We have heard the arguments against the execution of murderers, the primary one being the possibility that those convicted and on Death Row may not in fact be guilty. Fine. Even if we accept the proposition that some of these people are truly innocent, can someone explain to me why this man, Brian Nichols, brazen murderer of four innocent people, does not deserve to die for his crimes?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.