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The courtroom shooting of an Atlanta judge just 11 days after the murder of a Chicago federal judge’s family has judges across the nation worried about their safety — and resigned to the notion that the profession they’ve chosen is an inescapably dangerous one. Atlanta Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and a court reporter were gunned down Friday after a defendant on trial grabbed a sheriff deputy’s weapon and opened fire. The suspect escaped and later fatally shot a second deputy. The incident came as cries for increased security for federal judges were made in the wake of the killings of Chicago federal judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow’s husband and mother Feb. 28. “This is not a surprise. This was waiting to happen. This was not a question of if, it was a question of when,” says Superior Court Judge Philip Etheridge, who retired in January after 23 years on the Atlanta bench. He says that violent prisoners often were handled by a single deputy who, at times, was equipped insufficiently in terms of training and ability to deal with dangerous situations. “We’re all pretty sobered about what happened up in Chicago,” says U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who sits in Austin, Texas. Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says some action is needed and that the federal government must get involved. Regarding the Chicago incident, Kessler says, “There have been no public statements that I’m aware from the attorney general, the president or other politicians. It’s very important we have that kind of condemnation issued.” Suddenly, security for state and federal judges has become Topic A in courthouses nationwide. “The last two weeks have shocked the judicial world,” says Deanell Tacha, chief judge of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This week, Tacha will attend the federal Judicial Conference, where much of the planned agenda is expected to be an afterthought in the wake of the violence. Judge Thomas Hogan, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, says he and other judges attending the conference will meet in closed-door sessions Monday with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Benigno Reyna, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, which handles security for federal judges. “All the judges have expressed concern in light of the type of cases we have,” Hogan says. But the disparate facts at the center of the Atlanta and Chicago cases point out the difficulty of a solution. Barnes was murdered abruptly, in the open, with a weapon that wasn’t smuggled into the courthouse, but was grabbed from a deputy. In Chicago, Lefkow’s husband and mother were slain after the suspect allegedly broke into her house and waited for the judge to come home. “In these situations, it’s virtually impossible to protect against violence,” says Kessler. “You go about your business, do your daily job, take reasonable precautions, and that’s about all you really can do.” David Sacks, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, says federal judges have largely been safe during the service’s 216-year history. Right now, there are roughly 1,900 deputy U.S. marshals. The president’s 2006 budget requests about $7.4 million to add 65 new deputy U.S. marshals to provide judicial and courtroom security. The Marshals Service estimates it records 700 threats and inappropriate communications to judicial officials each year. Of those, approximately 20 per year are serious enough to require the service to provide a protective detail, and about a dozen of those require around-the-clock protection, the service says. “I would say we have a very, very good record,” Sacks says. “Not to belittle the situations in Atlanta and Chicago, but it’s been a long time since something has come up, and there are thousands of cases being handled by the federal courts.” Sacks says that since the Chicago shootings, there hasn’t been a large outcry from federal judges requesting 24-hour marshal protection. He says judges are aware of the dangers of the job. “This isn’t Mayberry,” Sacks says. “If you’re in federal court, it’s likely you did something heinous.” And judges in D.C. Superior Court, who are also protected by the Marshals Service, don’t seem ready to see their court become a fortress. “It doesn’t make me nervous,” says Judge Michael Rankin. “The court has to be an open building and has to be accessible to the public. We can’t go overboard with security. There are some people who are quite simply deranged.” D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Jr., chair-elect of the National Conference of State Trial Judges, says, “This is a reminder of the type of danger that is in our society,” adding, “I am no more nervous now than I am as a citizen of the street.” After the Chicago murders, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., sent a letter to Attorney General Gonzales requesting a review of security procedures. The Justice Department referred questions last week about courthouse security to the Marshals Service. In a statement issued March 11, Robert Grey Jr., president of the American Bar Association, said, “We must do everything in our power to make sure our courts are secure and safe, including considering providing home security systems for every judge.” The ABA also called on Congress to extend the law that allows federal judges to remove information from financial disclosure forms that could endanger them. The law is scheduled to expire in December. A spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said no new security measures were being considered, but that the Atlanta and Chicago incidents could change that. CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES Barnes, 64, was named to the Fulton County Superior Court bench in 1998. He drew national attention last month when he took the unusual step of ordering a mother of seven who pleaded guilty to killing her 5-week-old daughter to be sterilized to prevent her from having more children. “We lost a person who could teach people how to be a judge,” says attorney and former law enforcement officer Dennis Scheib, who was in a nearby courtroom during the shooting. Scheib says he has complained repeatedly about a lack of trained security personnel at the courthouse. Barnes’ killing came less than two weeks after the husband and elderly mother of Judge Lefkow were shot to death in her Chicago home. A man whose medical malpractice lawsuit was dismissed by Lefkow committed suicide last week and left a note saying he was the killer. While the Chicago slayings seem to be the kind most difficult for judges and marshals to guard against, the Atlanta murders are a different situation. In the Fulton County, Ga., courthouse where the shootings occurred, the deputy in the courtroom was armed with a service weapon. But in federal court, all agents, deputies and other law enforcement personnel must check their weapons in a locker. Only the marshals who provide security for the federal courthouse are armed. Inside federal courtrooms, the security officers who monitor trials are unarmed so that defendants or spectators can’t make a play for an officer’s gun. “That has turned out to be an extremely wise decision,” says D.C.’s Kessler. That’s also the case in some local jurisdictions. A court spokeswoman in Miami-Dade County, Fla., says bailiffs and courtroom deputies in county courts are unarmed. However, each courthouse has special “police liaisons” who are armed and ready to respond to emergencies. The spokeswoman confirms that law enforcement personnel from cities around Miami-Dade may come into the courthouse armed, but only if they demonstrate they have taken a “weapons retention training” course. Most police departments around the state require this as part of officers’ police training. Despite the precautions, at least one South Florida judge took safety into his own hands. The late U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger Jr., who sat in Fort Lauderdale, carried a gun beneath his judicial robes. Roettger, who died of a heart attack in 2003, presided over the murder conspiracy trials of religious cult leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh and a number of followers. Robert Brandt, the supervisory deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service in charge of D.C. Superior Court, says that marshals who handle prisoners don’t carry weapons “to prevent exactly what happened in Atlanta.” Brandt says 140 deputies work in Superior Court, and their placement varies depending upon staffing and cases. “We have a vigilant security profile all of the time,” he says. In the state of New York, although every criminal courtroom is manned by armed court officers, those who come into physical contact with defendants never carry firearms, says Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association. “We make them check their guns,” he says. Officers who do carry the standard .9 mm gun hold them in theft-proof, double-snap holsters, he adds. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, whose department is responsible for courtroom security at that city’s criminal and civil courthouses, says he has had a number of “heated discussions” about security with judges in the past. Years ago, he says, one presiding judge even threatened to hold him in contempt of court if he didn’t provide enough deputies to secure the courts. “It’s an ongoing debate,” the sheriff says. “We are providing good security with what we have, but we don’t have enough staff to be top-notch.” ON THE FRONT LINES While the incidents in Chicago and Atlanta have drawn public attention to courtroom security, there have been earlier threats against judges.Just last month, outside a courthouse in Tyler, Texas, a man angry about being sued for unpaid child support opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle, killing his ex-wife and a man trying to help the couple’s adult son. The shooter was later killed in a gun battle with police officers. And a federal judge in Tyler earlier this month added almost 22 years to the sentence of a state prison inmate who sent letters graphically detailing his plans to murder another judge and two prosecutors. “Our whole goal is to try to deter them,” says U.S. Attorney Richard Roper of Dallas, whose office prosecuted William Earl Hill for sending letters in which Hill threatened to torture and kill U.S. District Judge Richard Schell and two Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “Threats are part of our daily lives,” says Judge Sparks of Texas, who has served on the federal bench since 1991. In April 2004, a 24-year-old defendant was shot by a sheriff’s deputy while lunging at a Philadelphia judge after the judge sentenced him to a prison term. Police officials say the 6-foot-3-inch, 285-pound Shawn Frazier responded to his sentence by flipping over the defense counsel table and chasing after the judge, Gary Glazer, who ran out of the room to safety with Frazier in pursuit. When Frazier reached the door, the deputy fired a single shot into the defendant’s lower back. D.C.’s Kessler speaks about an incident that took place in her federal courtroom in 1996: Murder defendant Harold Cunningham Jr. smuggled a knife into the courtroom in a wheelchair during a multidefendant armed robbery case and stabbed a government witness in front of the jury. “That was of enormous concern to everyone,” Kessler says. “Over the years, I have only been concerned [for my safety] two or three times.” Chief Judge Hogan of the D.C. federal trial bench says he and his family came under close watch by marshals in 1985 after a threat was lodged against him by a Colombian drug cartel. Hogan says he was unaware of the threat until agents were stationed outside his home. He says he was under special protection for about a month. Three federal judges were assassinated in the 20th century. Charles Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson, is serving two life sentences for the 1979 murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood outside the judge’s San Antonio, Texas, home. In 1989, a mail bomb claimed the life of Judge Robert Vance of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at his home in a Birmingham, Ala., suburb. And in 1988, a former police officer shot and killed U.S. District Judge Richard Daronco as he worked in the yard of his Pelham Heights, N.Y., home. WATCHFUL EYES Kessler says that certain kinds of cases pose more risks than others — and not the ones that would seem to pose the biggest threat. “In criminal cases, the procedures for the security of everyone is thorough. They are thought out in advance and are usually effective,” she says, adding that it’s “the noncriminal cases, such as domestic relations, domestic violence and traffic” where situations become unpredictable and sometimes violent. “Traffic courts are the most volatile courtrooms that exist,” she says. Judge Charles Breyer, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, worries about litigants who represent themselves without benefit of a lawyer. “They’re the ones that present the risk because defendants feel very strongly about cases and take them personally,” says Breyer, brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “They don’t have a lawyer’s perspective on it.” Breyer makes a practice of never handing down a decision in this type of case in front of the litigant. Mary Cheh, a professor at George Washington University Law School and former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District, worries that the shootings in Atlanta and Chicago could lead to copycat crimes. “These kind of things generate their own repeat behavior,” Cheh says. “The truth is, a lot of people walk away from a courthouse feeling hard done by. If they’re unstable, their first line of attack could be the judge.”
This article was written by Legal Times Managing Editor James Oliphant. Information for the article was gathered by reporters at The Fulton County Daily Report, The Legal Intelligencer, Legal Times, The Miami Daily Business Review, The New York Law Journal, The Recorder and Texas Lawyer.

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