A Cause to Fight For

Gayle Abramson Csehy talks about that case, and the case for which she'd rather be remembered

Published in 2006 Georgia Rising Stars — October 2006

Gayle Abramson Csehy doesn’t volunteer much information about March 11, 2005. When asked, she starts to answer and then says, “Can I just take you through a chronology?” and recaps the original rape trial of Brian Nichols, which was tried a month earlier. It involved a compelling witness — “very successful, educated, a private and devout person,” Abramson Csehy says — as well as DNA evidence. But the jury was deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial, and Judge Rowland Barnes ordered a retrial. In that second trial, the prosecution relied on the same evidence with one substantial addition: “Nichols had testified in the first trial,” she says. “He gave us so much information. We were able to take each piece of his testimony and contradict it. That was huge.
 
“I had a cross-examination prepared for Brian Nichols on March 11 that probably would have lasted the whole day,” she says. “But I never got to it.”
 
Instead Nichols allegedly overpowered a deputy, stole her gun, entered the courtroom and killed Judge Barnes and Julie Brandau, a court reporter. He pointed his gun where Abramson Csehy would have been sitting, then escaped the building, killing two more people and leading Atlanta police on a massive manhunt before finally turning himself in. His murder trial is set for October.
 
But Abramson Csehy is adamant about the place the case holds for her as a former prosecutor. “I resent, somewhat, that I’ve become more well known because of it,” she says. “There’s another case that is more a hallmark of my career. In the Nichols case, there was nothing unique about it until he went on a killing spree.”
 
The other case shares some superficial similarities with the Nichols case. Both were rape cases — Abramson Csehy was the chief senior assistant district attorney and worked on the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit at the Fulton County district attorney’s office from 2001 to 2005. In both, she presented compelling evidence: eyewitness testimony, DNA evidence, other forensic data. In both, the juries didn’t convict — one ended in acquittal, the other with a hung jury.
 
That’s where the similarities end, for Abramson Csehy was later able to convict Ruben Fortune of serial rape.
 
Originally Fortune had been charged with the rape of a young woman who worked as a stripper. “We had DNA evidence,” Abramson Csehy says, “and in a lot of sexual assault cases, when there is DNA evidence the defense typically consents. But the jury did not believe the victim because of her occupation, and he was acquitted.”
 
Three years later, a series of sexual assaults took place at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. After one assault, the perpetrator left behind a tube of lip balm, which was matched to the DNA evidence gathered from the rape of the stripper. Fortune was identified as a suspect,
 
 
Abramson Csehy tried him again, and this time he was convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences. “Three years later,” says Abramson Csehy, “I was vindicated.” Abramson Csehy is intense — it’s easy to imagine a defendant on the stand paralyzed by her straight talk and unwavering gaze — and she talks dispassionately but not easily about the shootings. It is, she says, her way. “I’m very clinical about it,” she says. “That’s why I think I could handle serial rape prosecutions, sitting with women day after day and hearing those horror stories.” About her near-miss the day of the shootings, she says, “It’s an odd feeling. I imagine it’s what people who didn’t go to work on 9/11 feel. They happened not to be there. I’m sure I’ve had some post-traumatic stress. But it is what it is.”
 
The shootings, she says, were the catalyst, not the cause, of her leaving the district attorney’s office to join a civil law firm, where she worked in labor and employment law for a year. Now she has made another change: Recently married, Abramson Csehy has joined her husband, Rand Csehy, and David Martin at the Martin Advisory Group, where she represents pro athletes primarily in foundation work. She also provides criminal defense services with the Csehy Law Group, the legal arm of the Martin Advisory Group.
 
“I’d been doing criminal prosecution my whole career,” says the 34-year-old, who began as an intern with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office right out of Villanova law school in 1998. “I loved my job. And as much as I loved it, it stressed me out. I wanted to try civil practice.” Though she quickly made the adjustment, she missed the thing that had drawn her to be a prosecutor. “When I first started at the DA’s office, I was all about righteousness,” she says. “I would walk into the courtroom with a sense of righteous indignation: I am representing the citizens. I am speaking out for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
 
It’s crucial, she says, for her to believe she’s making a difference, and she didn’t have that sense of conviction in civil practice. She recalls being asked, as she was contemplating making the switch to civil law, how she would feel when she wasn’t necessarily on the side of righteousness. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I have to try,’” she remembers. But the result was “like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
 
She believes a seat at the defense table will restore her sense of mission. “Even at the DA’s office, I picked my battles,” she says. “I only prosecuted cases I truly believed in. So I’ll take that belief into my criminal defense practice.” The courtroom, she says, “is more me.”
 
Another passion Abramson Csehy takes to criminal defense is forensic evidence. “What I really liked about rape prosecution was the science of it — the DNA, the scientific evidence. I wish I could say I was born wanting to be a lawyer,” she says. “But I grew up with a strong aptitude for science and math. I was a psychology major, and my father is a doctor.” Growing up, she assumed she would follow in her father’s footsteps. She remembers sitting on the front steps with her baseball glove, “waiting for my father to come home so I could pepper him with questions about how the body works, what the science was.”
 
Reading, she says, was always hard for her. So was dealing with conflict. “I was always the people-pleaser,” she says. “And I hated that. I wanted a challenge; I wanted to overcome that fear.” Law school helped her discover that the fear evaporated when she had a cause to fight for.
 
She also benefited from the example set by her grandfather, who, along with her father and Judge Barnes, was one of her mentors. He was a defense attorney with the Navy until, she says, “all his clients were being acquitted, so they made him a prosecutor.” His death, during the first Nichols trial, dealt Abramson Csehy the first blow in what was to become a month of hell, but she dealt with it in her usual manner. After she got the news, Judge Barnes called for an extended lunch break. “Judge Barnes told me to take as long as I needed,” she says. “When I came back up to the courtroom — my last and best personal memory of Judge Barnes was seeing him in his robe, with his arms outstretched. He just enveloped me in a hug. I cried a little bit, and then I was ready to go.
 
“It’s a weird ability I have, to delay my grief,” she says. “I went to Judge Barnes’ memorial service, lost it, and then got it back together. I kept working.” Even after leaving the District Attorney’s office she kept working — flying around the country for her civil practice. “I became a gold medallion member with Delta in a year,” she says. “This year things have settled down.” That, she says, has been tough. “I had a much harder time this year on the anniversary of the shootings,” she says. “I was not myself. I was very emotional. All of it sank in.”
 
 
The morning of March 11, 2005, Abramson Csehy was running late. She had just left her office and was waiting for the elevator to take her to Judge Barnes’ courtroom when her cell phone rang. It was the rape victim; the woman and her family attended each day of the trial, and always called when they arrived. This morning, though, the woman merely said, “We’re OK, we’re OK,” and asked Abramson Csehy to help find her father. Before Abramson Csehy could say anything, the elevator doors opened and people shouted at her to get back in her office.
 
On the phone the rape victim told her, “There’s been a shooting.” Information came in bits and pieces. Abramson Csehy remembers: “I didn’t know who was shot. It could have been anywhere. I just knew everyone was being required to stay where they were.” Even after learning it was Judge Barnes who had been shot, she didn’t think he’d been killed; and even after learning about Barnes’ death, she didn’t suspect Brian Nichols. She assumed the shooting was connected with another case.
 
The rest of the day was “surreal,” she says. She planned to stay at a friend’s house, but came back to the courthouse to participate in a press conference. “I insisted on going,” she says. “Mostly because I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to let this maniac think I was in fear. Which wasn’t very smart. But I knew him,” she says, leaning forward. “I knew from talking to them about the case that his friends were too afraid of him to do anything, so if anybody would be coming after me, it would be him — and I thought he was halfway to Alabama by then.” In fact, Nichols remained in Atlanta, killing a fourth person and then allegedly taking a woman, Ashley Smith, hostage in her apartment, until she talked him into turning himself in the next day.
 
Abramson Csehy spent that time in protective custody. When Nichols was apprehended, “I’d like to say we had a feeling of relief,” she says, “but it was momentary.” With Nichols in custody, she began to acknowledge her grief over the deaths of Judge Barnes and Brandau. She’s still grateful, she says, for the attention and help she received from her friends, family and future husband.
 
 
The Nichols case continues to reverberate in Atlanta. Some question whether security at the courthouse has been improved since the shootings. The district attorney’s office took some heat as well, with suggestions that prosecutors could have done better in the first Nichols trial. Abramson Csehy strongly denies that. “I would never present a case with anything less than 100 percent effort,” she says. She refuses to criticize the jury, and says she has made peace with the fact that she doesn’t know how the second trial would have ended. “I was convinced the jury would have convicted him, but you never know,” she says. “I’ve let it go; I’ll never have that closure.”
 
When Nichols’ murder trial begins, the media will probably ask Abramson Csehy to talk about the case again, as they did on the anniversary of the shootings, and she’ll speak about it in her clinical way, which, if you listen carefully, isn’t as dispassionate as it seems. “I’m really, really, really angry,” she says quietly. “I’m most angry about what he did to everyone else. If I knew I could beat the crap out of him, that’s what I would do.”
 
Still, she will weather the attention from a place that feels like home — a courtroom, in her new role as defense attorney. And while she’s looking forward to an easier year emotionally, she knows herself well enough to realize that the stresses of the courtroom appeal to her. “This is my field,” she says. “It’s where I belong.”

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