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Spat between Albemarle judge, sheriff brings courtroom proceedings to standstill

An unusual standoff between a judge and a lawman brought an Albemarle County courtroom to a standstill Monday.

The dispute, which centered around courtroom microphones, delayed the hearing of Bobby Maurice Nicholson, who recently pleaded guilty to incest, by half an hour and pitted Albemarle County Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins against Albemarle County Sheriff Chan Bryant.

The conflict was already underway before Nicholson’s hearing could start.

"Did you say, ‘I’m not moving f’ing microphones anymore?’" Higgins asked one of the courtroom bailiffs, who are deputies under the Albemarle County sheriff.

Standing at the bench at the front of the courtroom with his back to the gallery, the bailiff’s answers were not immediately discernible. But the judge’s displeasure was.

"I want to see the sheriff," said the judge.

A bailiff disappeared behind a door and came back a few minutes later with a message.

"Your honor," the bailiff said, "the sheriff is busy now."

Amid another search for the sheriff, the judge said that after some outbursts at Nicholson’s last hearing she wanted to be sure that Nicholson couldn’t get his hands on a microphone.

At that hearing, which took place on Feb. 8, Nicholson appeared via video link from jail and managed to interrupt and talk over court personnel, including the judge and his own lawyer, according to a member of the gallery that day.

"I do not want anyone handing a microphone to the defendant," Higgins said Monday, "especially after the problems that arose at the last hearing."

At that Feb. 8 hearing, Nicholson ultimately signalled his agreement to an Alford plea, a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains his innocence but admits that the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict if brought to trial. The 60-year-old Nicholson pleaded guilty via the Alford plea to three counts of incest with his own child and three counts of forcible sodomy.

The deal Nicholson accepted would see him imprisoned him for 12 years, after which he would be barred from unsupervised contact with children and would have to maintain good behavior for another 40 years or risk another 28 years in prison. He would also have to register as a sex offender.

While Nicholson initially accepted the terms of that deal, it appears he has had second thoughts. In several hand-written motions written from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where he has been held without bail, Nicholson faulted his lawyers for steering him into the plea.

"I ask over and over to see the discovery video, statements, body cam, to help build my defense," he wrote. "Kept getting plea deal information, not trial information."

But on Monday, before Higgins would allow Nicholson’s hearing over his legal representation to begin, she demanded to see the sheriff, Bryant. When Bryant at last appeared before the bench, Higgins wanted to know if the sheriff had instructed her bailiff deputies not to move microphones.

"That’s correct, your honor," said Bryant. "They’re here for courtroom security and to maintain order in the gallery. They’re not here to move microphones."

The judge said that if the bailiffs won’t move microphones, she’d have to hire someone for the task or ask attorneys to do it.

While Nicholson watched calmly in his shackles and chains as this debate raged, the judge said she’d seen another defendant head-butt someone in court and didn’t want a repeat.

"I am concerned about the security, and Mr. Nicholson was somewhat agitated, even on video," said Higgins. "I do not want Mr. Nicholson in reaching distance of any attorney."

Courtroom security became a particularly hot topic in January when a defendant in a Las Vegas courtroom leaped over the bench and attacked a judge after hearing his sentence.

In the wake of that incident, several courtrooms across the country began to take extra precautions. Albemarle General District repositioned its two lawyers tables; the defense and prosecution tables, formerly positioned perpendicular to the judge’s bench, were moved to face the bench.

Back in Albemarle Circuit Court, Higgins wanted to get Nicholson’s case moving, but Bryant, who answers to the electorate, wouldn’t budge. She said she needed to speak with an attorney and a risk management adviser.

"How long will it take?" asked Higgins.

Bryant wasn’t sure.

In the meantime, Higgins said that Bryant’s bailiffs would be held in summary contempt if they refuse her order to move a microphone.

"They will pay the fines," said Bryant.

Higgins tried a new tack. She began reading from Virginia Code, section 53.1-120, which begins, "Each sheriff shall ensure that the courthouses and courtrooms within his jurisdiction are secure from violence and disruption and shall designate deputies for this purpose."

Still, Bryant wouldn’t budge. So Higgins ordered John Howard, one of Bryan’t deputies, to move a microphone. He declined.

"I hold deputy Howard in contempt," said Higgins. "That’s a $50 fine."

Approached by The Daily Progress afterward, Howard said, "Sheriff Bryant is the best."

Back in court, prosecutor Alicia Milligan had an idea to get the hearing moving. She’d promise to project her voice and give up her microphone to one of Nicholson’s two defense attorneys.

With that problem solved, at least for that particular hearing, the court considered Nicholson’s request: the ouster of his legal team, Jennifer Quezada and Miriam Airington-Fisher.

While Quezada told the court that she supported her own ouster because the relationship has been irreparably damaged, Milligan, the prosecutor, opposed the motion to withdraw because of the toll the case has taken on its now 17-year-old victim.

"She has been through a lot," Milligan told the court. "She deserves some closure."

After the judge approved the withdrawal, she appointed Peter Frazier as Nicholson’s fourth legal adviser in the case and set the matter for a scheduling hearing on April 1.

Milligan said that her days of offering Nicholson any deals are over.

"We won’t go down this road again with any other plea agreement," she told the court.


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