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A high-ranking sheriff’s deputy charges that a county investigation into the March 11 courthouse shootings in Atlanta that resulted in the death of a judge and two others was whitewashed to protect the county government from liability. Fulton County (Ga.) Chief Deputy Michael Cooke made the allegation in an interview with two members of an independent task force looking into courthouse security lapses. The interview transcript is one of about 50 that have been released by the task force, which was appointed by Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman to find out how rape defendant Brian Nichols allegedly broke free from a deputy and subsequently shot to death three people at the courthouse. Cooke, the third-highest-ranking deputy in the sheriff’s department, said that eight days after the shootings, Freeman and other top officers agreed to order an independent review of the violence so that it would not appear the department was attempting to protect its image. Two days later, Cooke told the investigators, County Attorney Overtis Hicks Brantley instigated a “bastardized investigation.” The initial report, released April 7, stated that Fulton deputies “responded appropriately and in a manner consistent with their training” during the courthouse shootings. The report assigned no blame for any possible missteps that may have contributed to the deaths of Fulton Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Brandau, and Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. In contrast to the sheriff’s initial report, the investigation by the task force, also known as the Fulton County Courthouse Security Commission, has resulted in the firings of eight deputies for violations such as unsatisfactory performance. Brantley called Cooke’s remarks “absurd,” explaining that the only way the victims’ families could collect damages would be through the state workers’ compensation system. “Most lawyers would understand that workers’ comp is the sole remedy for injury or death on the job,” she said. “Liability never entered my mind.” Cooke’s comments came during an 80-minute talk on May 11 with two task force investigators. He charged that the county attorney’s office controlled the investigation to protect the county. “They slanted it for liability purposes, the county attorney did,” he said. “I mean that they — it was a bastardized investigation. It was not a pure internal affairs investigation. It was slanted to protect the county commissioners against future lawsuits, in my opinion.” In an interview, Brantley said she disagreed with the idea that an outside entity should perform the initial appraisal of the events. “In general, I thought it appropriate for any department head to do the first assessment of what happened on an incident involving his department,” she said.
Steven H. Pollak is a staff writer for the Fulton County (Ga.) Daily Report, the ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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