TOPICS > Politics

Atlanta and Chicago Judge Killings Spark Concern over Judge Safety

March 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Shots rang out at about 9:00 A.M. on the eighth floor of the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta. Witnesses said the suspect, 33-year-old Brian Nichols, was to appear in court on rape and kidnapping charges when he overpowered the armed deputy escorting him into the courtroom and began shooting.

Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes died on his bench. A court reporter also died on the scene, and a deputy shot outside died later at a hospital. Another deputy was wounded.

DENNIS SCHEIB, Attorney: Deputies ran through there with their guns drawn and indicated the judge had been shot and told everyone to stay in the courtroom. Everybody stayed in the courtroom.

REPORTER: Did you ever think something like this could happen at the Fulton County Courthouse?

DENNIS SCHEIB: Yes. I mean, I’ve told them for years that the security up here wasn’t good. There are too few deputies, too many inmates, and the deputies have to get too close to the inmates, and they have guns on them when they do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Witnesses said the gunman fled the area by car-jacking at least one car. In Chicago, authorities said DNA tests helped confirm responsibility for the murder of two family members of a federal judge. Judge Joan Lefkow’s husband and elderly mother were killed execution-style in the family home 11 days ago.

Bart Ross committed suicide Wednesday, leaving a note saying he was the killer. Ross had made threats against Lefkow and other judges. In a letter to a Chicago television station, Ross said he regretted the killings but "had no choice but to shoot" Lefkow’s family members when they discovered him hiding in the basement.

Judge Lefkow had dismissed a malpractice suit Ross had brought against several Chicago doctors, hospitals and the federal government seeking $1 billion. Federal marshals had protected Judge Lefkow and her family in 2003 when white supremacist Matthew Hale was convicted of plotting her murder. The protection lasted a few weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: In view of the tragic events in Chicago and Atlanta, how safe are America’s judges? What is being done? And what can be done to keep them safe?

For that, we turn to: Judge Jane Roth of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit– she also heads the security committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference; Frederick Calhoun, who previously worked for the US Marshals’ Service and helped develop their federal judicial threat assessment system in the 1990s– he’s now an author and security trainer; and Aaron Kennard, Salt Lake County sheriff and president of the National Sheriff’s Association.

Welcome to you all. Let’s first talk about the threat, the problem, Mr. Calhoun. How often are judges attacked like this?

FREDERICK CALHOUN: Fortunately not often. It’s relatively uncommon. Since 1979, there have been three federal judges assassinated, which is not a lot. The state and local judges tend to be targeted for violence a little bit more, but then again, not a great amount. There have been seven state and local judges killed between 1970 and 2001. So taxi drivers, convenience store workers, people who work in mental hospitals all have a much higher rate of violence.

MARGARET WARNER: And where are judges most at risk — in the courtroom or outside?

FREDERICK CALHOUN: Once again, you have to distinguish between whether it’s a federal judicial official or state and local. The Marshal Service and the administrative office of the US Courts, Judge Roth, have done a terrific job at fortifying federal courthouses. So it is no coincidence that the three federal judges who have been killed since 1979 were all killed at home.

MARGARET WARNER: Judge Roth, let me turn to you. I think I read today that there are at least 700 threats against federal judges a year and that that is a sharp increase over the last two decades. How threatened do federal judges– I mean, you’re one yourself– feel just as a matter of course?

JUDGE JANE ROTH: I think in the courthouse we feel very safe. There are judges who feel a significant risk in their home and that, of course has increased since the tragedy in Chicago. And I think a reevaluation of off-site security is very important at the present time.

MARGARET WARNER: And some judges have said that they think the Internet has made them more vulnerable. Do you share that? And explain that, if so.

JUDGE JANE ROTH: Yes, I do. Because there is a great deal of information that can be found about judges, where they live, their Social Security number, where members of their family can be found, on the Internet.

And that can be developed when you buy a refrigerator and sign the warranty card and that information is sold by the manufacturer to list making companies and even though your name does not appear as a judge on the Internet, if someone who wants to do you harm knows your name, they can find out a great deal of information on the Internet about you. And I think that emphasizes the need to have greater security off-site for judges.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And Sheriff Kennard, sheriffs, of course, provide the security at most county courthouses, which is where most people go to court. How great a threat do you think there is?

SHERIFF AARON KENNARD: Well, we train our people on the very issues that you spoke about and that the judge spoke about. There is a greater threat, as the judge indicated, to the judges off site. Internally, access to the courts as well as the courtrooms, we have our people very well trained and they are all armed.

Some of that training involves weapon retention, arrest control techniques as well as self-defense techniques. So our people are trained in the issues. What happened today is very unfortunate. I would like to see the actual situation as to how it went down.

MARGARET WARNER: And how did you… did you feel you in Salt Lake County had to respond to today’s shooting in Atlanta? Was there a reaction?

SHERIFF AARON KENNARD: Well, as soon as I heard of the story, I immediately went to my court and assembled my command staff. We approached the judges that were in session and we had a high-profile situation going as we speak.

And I also have a judge that I have placed under 24-hour protection because he has had threats placed against him. We ratcheted up our security in Salt Lake County because of the incident in Atlanta and hopefully others took the same advice and did the same thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Calhoun, is there a profile, a type of person who makes threats against judges and/or actually carries them out?

FREDERICK CALHOUN: No, I’m not a great believer in profiles. In assessing someone who may be a risk to a judicial official, a judge or a prosecutor, you can’t go by any rational standard of is this case important?

What would be reasonable to you and I to say "oh, this is a weighty matter so the motive is higher" really doesn’t apply in the judicial setting because what you want to know is how important does the individual you’re assessing feel that the case is.

I know of a case in Alexandria, Virginia, quite sometime ago, in which a judge levied a civil fine against a person who would not control his dog barking. And that individual felt insulted by the fine and five years later, went back and killed the judge.

MARGARET WARNER: Sheriff Kennard, let me go back to you. Today the situation was that there was a deputy, as we’re told, a deputy was carrying a gun while handling the prisoner, getting the prisoner to the courthouse. Are there national standards and, if so, what are they for when a courthouse personnel like sheriffs and their deputies carry guns in the courthouse and courtroom?

SHERIFF AARON KENNARD: There are no national standards. We have American Jail Association that has some standards dealing with jailers, how they’re transported, but we have some standards within the State of Utah dealing with court security.

But to my knowledge, there are no jail personnel or corrections or deputies that are not armed in dealing with these people, because the judges expect the very last resort, that a deputy be armed and be able to neutralize a threat. Another issue that may come before us all would be the use of the taser weapons in this regard, too. So the duty of the deputies is to protect the judges as well as the defendants and the public in these courtrooms.

MARGARET WARNER: But just, quickly, aren’t there usually at least metal detectors at the entrances of courthouses?

SHERIFF AARON KENNARD: Well, there are, but there are also ways of compromising just about every security effort that is put before anybody. The last line of defense is going to be that deputy and if that deputy has no means by which to neutralize the threat, if somebody is able to compromise our security, then we have to rely on the very last line of defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Judge Roth, tell us more now about what kind of protection you’re… you said that the courthouses are very well fortified but what if a judge feels under threat at home or outside or receives a threat. What actually is done to protect you?

JUDGE JANE ROTH: Well, if there is a direct threat to the judge, the United States Marshal Service will provide protection, a protective detail, perhaps cameras on the house depending upon the nature and the extent of the threat.

But tragedies happen usually without warning and the Marshal Service will do an evaluation of the residence of every judge. I had that done of my residence. They recommended an alarm system. They recommend cutting back shrubbery around the house so intruders can’t conceal themselves.

They recommend very strongly that off dog and I have a large St. Bernard which they approved of highly as a security measure. The problem is that what they recommend… the judge, then, has to pay for out of your own personal expense.

MARGARET WARNER: That was going to be my next question. One other question to you: Now, the marshals in your courtroom, even those close to the prisoner or the defendant or, for that matter, the plaintiff, are they armed?

JUDGE JANE ROTH: The marshal who is escorting the prisoner would not be armed. There would be armed marshals in the courthouse and it’s our practice not to permit any other armed law enforcement officer in the courthouse except the United States Marshals.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Calhoun, let me ask you about at least protection at the federal level. The inspector general of the Justice Department last year issued a report last year actually sort of critical of the threat, assessment and the response of the Marshal Service. Do you think there’s room for improvement?

FREDERICK CALHOUN: There’s room for improvement in any organization.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess how is my question.

FREDERICK CALHOUN: I’m a great believer in physical security and then being enhanced by a very robust training program so that law enforcement goes into the courthouse and trains not only the judicial official but the judicial official’s staff, the people in the mail room, the people in the clerk’s office, anybody that has any dealings with the public.

To train them on inappropriate communications, surveillance behaviors, things that to a law enforcement officer would be troublesome and then how to report that and to whom to report that so that those issues and events and behaviors come to the attention of law enforcement where they can identify someone who may be intending violence and then assess them and pick the appropriate threat management strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: I saw you shaking your head when I asked about whether there were metal detectors at most county courthouses.

FREDERICK CALHOUN: That comes with the issue that Judge Roth is very familiar with. It’s all budget. It’s what you can afford. I’ve known of courthouses that had magnetometers in the basement because they couldn’t staff them.

MARGARET WARNER: Quickly, Judge Roth, you’re meeting with the attorney general next week. Are you going to suggest more needs to be done and if so, give us the one most important thing.

JUDGE JANE ROTH: Well, I think the most important thick is a reconsideration of what off-site security will be offered to judges and their families.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much.