News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
March 20, 2005
In Courts, Threats Become Alarming Fact of Life
By DEBORAH SONTAG
Last March, a federal prosecutor in Utah overseeing a racketeering case against a dozen members of the Soldiers of Aryan Culture received a chilling threat.
"You stupid bitch!" the letter to the assistant United States attorney, who is an African-American woman, began. "It is because of you that my brothers are in jail." The letter went on to mention the prosecutor's home address, concluding, "We will get you." It was signed, "Till the casket drops."
After a second threat, a federal magistrate summoned the 12 defendants to a courtroom in Salt Lake City late last year and informed them that their family visits and telephone privileges would be suspended.
The men, who are accused of operating a violent criminal enterprise that peddles white supremacist ideology and methamphetamine inside and outside Utah's prisons, did not take the news well.
Seated in the jury box because they were too numerous to sit together at the defense table, the defendants were handcuffed and shackled. But this did not stop them from leaping to their feet, spewing profanity-laden protests, spitting, kicking and scuffling with more than a dozen United States marshals and court security officers.
It was not just another day in an American courtroom, but it was not an aberration either. Defendants act out. And threats against judges and prosecutors appear to be a regular, almost routine, part of courthouse life, not only in highly public emotional cases like that of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman in Florida whose feeding tube was removed by court order on Friday, but in garden-variety disputes, too.
Only federal authorities keep a count of annual threats, but the 700 reported against federal judicial officials alone suggest that the total made against federal, state and local court officials is much larger.
In the last decade, too, threats have escalated, especially on the federal level, where there is a new age of dangerous cases involving terrorism, international drug trafficking, international organized crime and gangs. Violent incidents themselves, inside and outside the courtroom, are not tallied, but they are known to involve an unpredictable range of defendants, from white supremacists and gang members to white-collar frauds, batterers and civil litigants.
Court-related violence is a chronic, costly preoccupation for those inside the system, but it is not one that usually gets much attention. That concern ratcheted up considerably and went public after the back-to-back killings of a federal judge's relatives in Chicago and of a judge, court reporter, sheriff's deputy and federal customs agent in Atlanta.
The killings, which the authorities say were committed by a disgruntled plaintiff in Chicago on Feb. 28 and a rape defendant on March 11 in Atlanta, prompted security reviews at courthouses around the country, an appeal by federal judges for bolstered security and a nationwide, soul-searching conversation among judges, prosecutors and other court officials shaken by the events.
In his annual state of the judiciary speech on Tuesday, Ronald M. George, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, said the slayings highlighted "the physical vulnerability of our courts." Two-thirds of California's courthouses lack adequate security, Chief Justice George said, relating the story of a rural judge who stacked law books in front of his bench to protect himself from flying bullets during an attempted hostage-taking in 1997.
"Courthouses must be a safe harbor to which members of the public come to resolve disputes that often are volatile," he said. "Once courthouses themselves are perceived as dangerous, the integrity and efficacy of the entire judicial process is in jeopardy."
Chief Justice George, as he acknowledged, did not have to go back to 1997 to find an example of courtroom violence in California.
Just the day before, Erick Morales, a gang member on trial for murder in Los Angeles County, slashed the arm of his court-appointed lawyer with a razor blade hidden in his mouth. Mr. Morales's wrists were secured to his waist, but the restraints had been loosened to make them less visible to jurors, allowing him to spit out the blade, catch it and cut his lawyer, Linda Wieder, who needed five stitches.
While it might seem counterintuitive that a defendant would attack his own lawyer, some public defenders say it is commonplace for their clients to disparage them.
"In any prison, the person most inmates name as responsible for them being there is 'the dump truck P.D.,' " said David Coleman, the public defender in Contra Costa County, Calif. "Thus, the razor or weapon used against a public defender is all too common."
On Tuesday, facing an additional charge of assault with a deadly weapon, Mr. Morales briefly appeared again in court. He was strapped at his shoulders, ankles and wrists into what the presiding judge, Ronald Coen of Los Angeles County Superior Court, called "the Hannibal Lecter chair," referring to the "Silence of the Lambs" character.
"Over the years, we've seen numerous shanks in the courtroom," Judge Coen, who specializes in death penalty cases, said in an interview. "Still, I think we're seeing more bold defendants. When I was a young lawyer, I didn't see judges getting attacked."
Lethal attacks on judges and prosecutors remain relatively rare, but they do happen. Three federal judges were assassinated from 1979 to 1989, and two more have been assaulted in the last few years; at least seven state and local judges have been killed. A nationwide prosecutors' memorial in Columbia, S.C., contains the names of eight prosecutors killed from 1967 to 2001 and a ninth is about to be added.
"The numbers killed are small, but the numbers threatened are relatively high," said Dan Alsobrooks, the district attorney in Charlotte, Tenn., and past president of the National District Attorneys Association. A 2001 survey by the association found that 81 percent of large state prosecutors' offices reported work-related threats or assaults that year. And a Justice Department survey determined that 40 percent of state and local prosecutors felt threatened in their jobs.
"You take precautions," Mr. Alsobrooks said. "You arm yourself, you wear a bulletproof vest, you get round-the-clock security."
Threats against federal judicial officials have undergone a "dramatic increase"' to average about 700 annually in recent years, according to the United States Marshals Service. The marshals handle security for all federal judges and courts in the country. In 2004, they provided protective details for 39 federal judges and prosecutors. This included round-the-clock protection for two judges in New York City - Michael B. Mukasey and Kevin T. Duffy - whose involvement in terrorism trials has forced them to live under protection for more than a decade.
On the state and local levels, where security is weaker, especially in rural courthouses and in ancillary courts like traffic court and family court, officials say judges and prosecutors constantly receive threats.
In New York, there are 120 to 150 cases involving threats against state-paid judges annually, and that number has varied little over the last decade, said Ronald Younkins, the chief of operations for the New York State Unified Court System.
George W. Greer, a state judge in Florida, has been the target of considerable invective and the recipient of voluminous hate mail and death threats for ordering the removal of a feeding tube from Ms. Schiavo. For weeks, sheriff's deputies have kept Judge Greer under close guard.
Judge John Hill, a senior appellate justice in Texas who was shot in his courtroom in 1992 during a child custody case, said he worried about "the general encouragement of ill feeling against the judiciary." Several other judges also expressed concern about the sharp language used to denounce so-called activist judges.
"I don't know if it has any effect, but there are a lot of political attacks on judges today," Judge Hill said.
In San Fernando, Calif., Judge Coen said that he had received numerous threats, that deputies had moved into his house on several occasions and that he was habitually security-minded. He has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. As a "confidential voter," his name and home address do not appear on voter rolls. He has all his mail sent to his office.
"You don't wear a sign saying, 'I'm a judge,' " he said. "You do your best not to advertise that fact. Our chief justice made a statement when I got sworn in 20 years ago. He said, 'With every ruling, a judge makes one permanent enemy and one temporary friend.' If you go by that, you have to protect yourself."
White supremacists and gang members are hardly the only ones who threaten officials. "What we get is a lot of people who look like Mr. Ross," Richard Eadie, the presiding judge at the King County Superior Courthouse in Seattle, said. He was referring to Bart Ross, the 57-year-old electrician who claimed responsibility in a suicide note for the killings in Chicago of the husband and mother of Judge Joan Lefkow of Federal District Court. "It's a person who has a civil case, is disturbed by the result, obsesses on the case, focuses on the court system as the culprit and even on the judge as the villain."
Last fall, Judge Lefkow dismissed a lawsuit in which Mr. Ross sought to hold doctors responsible for disfiguring him during cancer treatment. He represented himself "pro se," like many of the plaintiffs who become unnaturally obsessive about their cases, according to court officials.
"In a society as litigious as ours, the courtroom has become the theater for emotional catharsis," said J. Anthony Kline, the presiding justice of the California Court of Appeals in San Francisco. "Those threats are greatest that involve disputes over the quotidian events because they are the ones that stimulate the most intense emotions."
In and of themselves, threats can be potent in destabilizing the justice system, officials say. In Utah, the federal prosecutor was not harmed, but the threats were serious enough to force her off the Soldiers of Aryan Culture case. Federal prosecutors in Idaho have indicted two people for the threats.
Actual assassination plots, though far rarer, clearly shake up the system, too. Consider the case of Amr Mohsen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the defendant in a complicated case arising from a business rivalry.
It might have seemed unlikely that Mr. Mohsen, the founder of a San Jose company called Aptix Corporation, would try to hire a hit man to kill a federal judge who presided over a patent-infringement case. But, as a result of that civil case, Mr. Mohsen was in jail facing multiple charges of conspiracy to commit perjury and obstruct justice. And, according to the government, he did indeed solicit a fellow inmate to kill the judge - although he quibbled at the asking price of $25,000, saying he considered $10,000 more reasonable.
The inmate, an informant, caught the conversation on tape.
"So, now, what would you want?" the informant asked Mr. Mohsen, according to a tape transcript Mr. Mohsen's lawyer provided. "He could be shot. He could be knifed. He could be blown up or it could look like, maybe a gas leak in his house or what?"
Mr. Mohsen asked the man which approach would be "the least traceable," and though he expressed some discomfort with the idea of killing a judge, he ordered the informant to track the judge's movements.
"I wouldn't want to do it at the courthouse," he said. "Get him when he's driving around. I'm sure he goes to a golf course or something."
When Mr. Mohsen pleaded not guilty last summer to 23 criminal counts including solicitation to murder a federal judge, the case had to be assigned to a judge in Sacramento because the entire San Francisco bench recused itself from the case.
Most attackers do not issue an explicit threat beforehand, according to a study of judicial violence done for the United States Secret Service. But that does not mean that threats can be ignored. Said Judge Eadie in Seattle, "It's very difficult to separate the people who are just blowing off steam from the people who are building up steam and will explode eventually."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Secret Service study said, most "near-lethal approachers and the great majority of attackers and assassins" are not mentally ill. Attacks on public officials are generally premeditated; the attackers' motives can include the desire for notoriety and the desire for vengeance. And there is no profile of a judicial assassin. Would-be assassins run the gamut from white-collar criminals to cold-blooded killers like Larry Delon Casey, convicted in 1973 of murdering two children and an 86-year-old woman in Texas.
For years after he first landed in prison, Mr. Casey sent Bert Graham, the prosecutor on his case, a Christmas card that said, "Thinking of you." A few years ago, prison authorities discovered that Mr. Casey was plotting to kill Mr. Graham, now the first assistant district attorney in Harris County, and eventually Mr. Casey hired an undercover police officer to commit the murder.
Mr. Graham acknowledged "shock and concern" when he learned of Mr. Casey's obsession. "I was surprised he was planning something that specific," he said. "He was fully capable of following through with the plan."
Often it takes a murder plot or a violent incident to serve as a catalyst for enhanced security. After the slayings in Chicago and Atlanta, court officials across the country are re-examining security - adding razor wire here, security cameras there - and debating approaches to security enhancement because many fear turning courthouses into fortresses. They are also hoping that the current flash of public interest will shake free some financing.
In Okaloosa County in the Florida Panhandle, however, Judge Thomas T. Remington of Circuit Court is not optimistic. His motel-like courthouse in Shalimar is the least secure in the state, he said, offering nearly unfettered public access.
For eight years, voters have refused to approve a 1-cent sales tax to help build a new, secure courthouse. "Voters just think it's some luxury for judges, lawyers and crooks," Judge Remington said.
For a moment after the Atlanta shootings, he allowed himself to hope. But letters to the editor in the local newspaper proclaimed that the lethal shootings inside the modern Atlanta courthouse proved that modern buildings are not safe, either.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Maureen Balleza in Houston, Duwayne Escobedo in Pensacola, Fla., Carol Pogash in San Francisco and Eli Sanders in Seattle.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
Send a letter
to the editor
about this article
Back to The Yurica Report Home Page Copyright © 2004 Yurica Report. All rights reserved.