The DNA of Violence

A jury has convicted Atlanta courthouse killer Brian Gene Nichols, and Atlanta has heaved a sigh of relief. Nichols was sentenced Saturday to seven life sentences and four sentences of life without parole plus 485 years for the crimes he committed on March 11, 2005.

At that time Nichols captured national when he overpowered a sheriff’s deputy at an Atlanta courthouse, stole her gun, beat her to permanent brain damage, shot dead the judge and court reporter in his sexual assault trial, killed a sheriff’s deputy and later an off-duty federal officer.

Nichols, a computer systems administrator, then led local and state officials on a desperate 26-hour manhunt, some of it televised live on CNN.

Since the murders, few have noted that Nichols’ crimes began with a classic case of domestic violence sexual assault -- a revenge rape of a former girlfriend who chose to see another man. Nichols was in the midst of a second trial on those charges when the killings occurred. The first trial ended in mistrial when jurors could not agree on a verdict.

The Nichols case illustrates an essential truth. Domestic violence and sexual violence are the DNA of violence throughout society. It’s where violence begins.

Consider these allegations presented at trial, according to transcripts culled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After a number of menacing confrontations with his former girlfriend and the man she was dating, Nichols stormed into the woman’s home at 5 a.m. one morning in 2004, pointed a silver semiautomatic handgun at her and demanded she turn off a security alarm. The woman had set a new password on the security system because she hadn’t had time to change the locks to keep Nichols out, she testified.

The woman, a corporate executive, said Nichols bound her with duct tape, put her in the bathtub and left. When he came back, he brought a cooler stocked with food and told her that he planned to stay and assault her until her birthday three days later. He pulled a can of lighter fluid out of a duffel bag and threatened to set her ablaze if she yelled or tried to escape. The next day, he unbound and rebound her, committed forcible oral sodomy, raped her and used a machine gun to terrorize her.

After the sexual assault, she said, Nichols warned her not to “escalate” the situation by contacting authorities, or he would kill her family and friends. The woman also testified that Nichols told her he would stop bothering her: “I’m out of your life. This is over for me as well. This has put closure to us.”

Some jurors later said they thought the woman’s story was too outlandish to believe beyond a reasonable doubt. It was an outlandish result at the time that did not make the news, but it is also a horrifyingly common outcome in courtrooms across the country every day.

Most people like to believe they can tell the good guys from the bad guys, the rapists from the reckless, and batterers from true lovers, loving husbands and decent exes. But in crimes of domestic violence -- and the sexual assault case against Brian Nichols was a prototypical example -- the public often fails to comprehend the two-faced criminal personality at work. Like many perpetrators, Nichols was a charming, church-going professional in public, and a cruel controlling brute behind closed doors.

Prosecutors, police and people who work with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence know that Nichols’ alleged spiral of violence fits a common pattern, especially as a perpetrator’s fear of losing control of his target victim becomes more acute.

Atlanta police understood Nichols’ potential for escalating violence at the time of his original arrest on sexual assault charges. They sent a SWAT team to arrest him after his former girlfriend reported the assaults.

The judge understood Nichols’ potential for escalating violence. He kept Nichols in jail pending trial.

The prosecutor’s office understood Nichols potential for escalating violence. The attorney trying the case moved for a retrial within days of the mistrial -- a dizzying speed in any court system.

Yet the jury failed to convict an attractive man on charges of raping a former lover.

The foreman of the first Nichols jury detailed his doubts about Nichols’ guilt on the rape charge in a 2005 letter to the Atlanta newspaper that blamed the prosecutor for providing too little evidence. “Our Nichols was, at worst, a conniving, jealous, philandering snake who was in the process of losing his Sugar Mama and may have forced her to have sex with him one last time,” Jack Liles wrote. “He did not appear to us, however, as a man about to snap as he did.”

Court systems everywhere can invest millions in new security systems to try to protect against future escapes and murders in the full light of day, even in the very halls of justice. Yet public safety would be enhanced far more by  a small dose of common sense and public acceptance of sexual assault as an inherently violent crime.

Had every member of the jury understood the power and control motives at the root of domestic and sexual violence and the criminal nature of sex at gunpoint, Nichols would likely have been in prison, not in a local courthouse in the midst of a second trial.

The successful prosecution of sexual assault and domestic violence has become a routine part of the legal system in most major cities. Now it’s the public’s turn to believe victims who tell horrifying tales of violence at the hands of rapists and batterers -- the first time.


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