Judges on Defensive : Terror in Courtrooms on the Rise

Times Staff Writer

When Cook County Circuit Judge Richard Samuels refused last April to clear Gary Dotson of a 6-year-old rape charge--despite his supposed victim’s confession that the attack had never occurred--the judge knew that the flak would be intense.

He expected the hundreds of critical letters that followed his decision to ignore Cathleen Crowell Webb’s abject plea to free Dotson. But the anonymous phone call to his suburban Chicago court the evening of the ruling shattered whatever remnants of judicial decorum the highly publicized case had left in its wake.

The caller, Samuels remembered, “said that I was going to die that night.”

Other death threats followed, and for the next month, until Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson shifted attention from the judge by commuting Dotson’s sentence, deputies escorted Samuels in and out of the Cook County Courthouse in Markham, Ill. Village police maintained a quiet surveillance on his home and family.


‘Very, Very Watchful’

“They were--especially during the worst of times--very, very watchful,” Samuels said in a recent interview.

Samuels escaped unscathed from the emotion-packed weeks during which the Dotson case was national news. None of the threats materialized.

But he had confronted head-on a style of domestic terror that is putting the nation’s courts on the defensive: No longer can judges assume that their safety and the security of the courtroom are sacrosanct.


The dangers of service on the bench--both real and threatened--have increased in the last several years, according to security experts who monitor courtroom violence.

Recently, gunfire erupted in a San Francisco courtroom when the father of a murder victim pulled a pistol from his briefcase and began firing at the defendant. The gunman, Jack Spiegelman, has been charged with trying to kill Daniel D. Morgan, who is accused of killing Spiegelman’s teen-age daughter in 1983.

Judge Assassinated

The last judge to die in court was Cook County Judge Henry Gentile, gunned down in October, 1983, by a wheelchair-bound former Chicago policeman angry that he was not allowed to change attorneys during a property dispute with his ex-wife. But security experts say it was only chance that judges escaped injury in other recent incidents, such as one last April when a murder suspect--handed a gun by a friend as he entered a Salt Lake City courtroom--killed an attorney and critically wounded a bailiff.


Threats, meanwhile, are virtually an everyday occurrence in some courthouses, judges say. “I don’t know of any judge who’s been on the bench that hasn’t gotten something,” said Michael Valentine, chief judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Fairfax County, Va., and a lecturer on court security.

While there are no nationwide statistics on threats to or attacks on judges, data gathered by the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which is responsible for security in federal courthouses, shows:

- From 1981 to 1985, threats to federal judges and court personnel serious enough to require a response by security forces increased 233%. More than four in five of the threats were directed at federal judges or magistrates, with the remainder aimed at court clerks and federal prosecutors.

- Serious threats leaped 57% in the last year alone, from 153 in 1984 to 240 in the year ending Sept. 30. The pace this year is about even with last: There were 125 serious threats through early April.


- The U.S. Marshal’s Service classified certain threats so severe that it placed 57 federal judges--more than one in 18 nationwide--under round-the-clock protection for at least 72 hours at some point during 1985. One day last week, three judges had 24-hour guard details, according to Stephen Boyle, chief of congressional and public affairs for the Marshal’s Service, headquartered in McLean, Va.

“Virtually not a day goes by when there isn’t a federal judge somewhere under 24-hour protective coverage by the marshals,” Boyle said.

- Guards seized 21,888 knives, guns and other weapons from people passing through metal detectors at federal courts in 10 states last year. At the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, marshals maintain a private display of switch-blade knives, automatic pistols, revolvers and other weapons taken from visitors there, said Joe Landi, supervisor of court security.

Security analysts speculate that an array of social and legal trends have converged to heighten judges’ exposure to job-related dangers.


Beginning with the courtroom antics of 1960s radicals such as the Chicago Seven anti-war protesters, respect for courts and judges has broken down, according to Gilbert Skinner, a security consultant in Lansing, Mich.

Meanwhile, state legislatures have toughened criminal penalties and taken away judicial sentencing flexibility, raising the stakes for wrongdoing and the incentive for desperate attacks by criminals on judges and other officials, he said.

‘Increase in Threats’

“People know if they go down today for a major drug offense, they’re going to be doing hard time,” Skinner said. “That’s going to mean a tremendous propensity for an increase in threats to the judiciary and the (judges’) families.”


In federal courts, the increased emphasis on drug and major crime prosecutions has exposed federal judges to cases of violent crime that would have come before them only infrequently a few years ago, Boyle said.

Security experts say the dangers do not come only with duty in criminal courts. In fact, they say, acts of violence are most common when passion flares in domestic and civil courts.

The changes have sneaked up on a judiciary that in many ways remains inattentive to the increased risk, creating “a ripe ground for violent acts,” Skinner said.

Deaths and direct attacks on judges have remained infrequent enough that some court officials are able to ignore them as chance, unavoidable acts.


One U.S. Judge Killed

Federal judges, for instance, can take at least some solace in knowing that U.S. District Judge John Wood of San Antonio, who was killed in 1979 by gunmen hired by the wife of a man he had sent to jail on drug charges, is the only federal judge to be assassinated in more than a century.

Without evidence of an immediate danger, many judges are reluctant to admit that they are vulnerable. “You have a lot of judges and court administrators who think, ‘I’m rough, tough and hard to diaper, so this isn’t going to affect me,’ ” Skinner said.

Some jurisdictions, moreover, detect no evidence of an increased risk for judges. For instance, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, responsible for the security of Los Angeles County Superior Court judges, reports no increase in threats against them, according to Deputy Dave Tellez, a sheriff’s spokesman.


Even when judges do recognize the possible dangers, officials who control county and state purse strings sometimes are slow to finance basic safety measures for the courts.

“The best way to get changes implemented is to have some judge bite the dust,” Valentine, of the Fairfax County court, said ruefully.

Changing Judges’ Lives

The threats, violence and heightened reliance on security precautions are changing judges’ lives.


When U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving of San Diego was threatened by drug traffickers last year, he readily accepted Marshal’s Service protection. But he quickly found that around-the-clock security can make even a judge feel like a prisoner.

A detail of marshals watched him in court and around the courthouse, followed him home and stood by his side at cocktail parties and golf tournaments, Irving said in a speech last month to the San Diego County Bar Assn. Auxiliary.

“You just decide it’s not worth it to go anywhere,” he said. “It just closes in your life to a point that’s almost incredible.”

Likewise, much of the advice offered to judges as ways to minimize the risk of attack is uncomfortably constraining.


Taking Precautions

Instructors in increasingly popular seminars conducted by the Denver-based Institute for Court Management and the Alexandria, Va.,-based National Sheriffs’ Assn. urge judges to keep unlisted phone numbers, vary their driving routes, avoid discussing their families in newspaper interviews and let police know their whereabouts when they are out of town so threats can be relayed.

“For years, judges thought it was clever to put ‘DA JUDGE’ on their license plates,” said Mary Brittain, senior staff associate at the Institute for Court Management.

“That’s a thing of the past. We encourage them not to call attention to themselves.”


Some judges take security into their own hands. Valentine said that in polls he conducts during seminars, as many as 5% of the judges say they pack pistols on the bench.

Judges also can buy bulletproof judicial robes. “Most of the time it’s a custom job, but I can assure you that some judges wear regular body armor, too,” said Howard Johnson, sales manager for American Body Armor, a manufacturer in Fernandina Beach, Fla. “We have gotten calls more and more every day on things like that.”

Law enforcement agencies also are trying to become more sophisticated in dealing with people who threaten judges.

Judging the Threats


The California State Police, the agency responsible for providing security for top state officials, established a threat assessment unit last year to collect information from law enforcement agencies about people who threaten dignitaries, including about 1,500 judges statewide, said Sgt. Mike Henretty. A computer helps investigators find patterns in the wording and symbols of threatening letters and phone calls, an aid in tracking suspects and separating empty threats from serious problems, Henretty said.

Protection is costly, however, and in an era of budget cutting, court security has not been spared the ax.

Under requirements of the federal Gramm-Rudman spending-reduction bill, the Judicial Conference of the United States trimmed its court protection budget by about 5% last month, eliminating 90 security guard positions at courthouses around the country and reducing the budget for X-ray machines and other security equipment, according to Bill Weller, legislative affairs director. The Marshal’s Service, faced with a 4.3% budget cut, has pledged to maintain current security levels for the time being, spokesman Joyce McDonald said.

Security consultants warn, however, that even the most generous security budget is of little use when a judge is stalked by a serious threat. “All the equipment in the world is not going to save you if I want you bad enough,” Skinner said.


Some Admit Fear

Nonetheless, most judges insist that they are not intimidated by threats and that their impartiality is not shaken. In fact, the closest most judges will come to acknowledging the emotional effect of a death threat is to admit, occasionally, to being afraid.

“It scares me, sure, there’s no question about it,” said a Texas judge, a woman with nearly five years of experience on the bench who was fearful of drawing more threats if her name was published. “But it would never affect a decision. What it would do is it may make me nervous for a few days.”

But a retired Texas appellate judge, James Zimmerman, who received special protection when a convict who had once threatened him escaped from prison, said he knows of instances where the risks and pressure have left their mark on judges, damaging their personalities and judicial temperament.


“Their state of mind became permanently changed,” he said. “They became really different people--suspicious, anxious, irascible, harder to get along with, more intemperate than they were before. Defense attorneys would say they took it out on their clients.”

Irving acknowledged that it would be hard to ignore a threat concerning a case then before him in court.

‘A Difficult Time’

“If I knew a person before me was the source of the threat, that conceivably would be a problem,” he said. “You’d have a difficult time fairly and impartially handling a case.”


Security experts and judges say that such instances are not widespread, but each one, along with each direct attack on a judge, represents a serious danger to an independent judiciary.

“Far more than the police, far more than corrections (officials), far more than political people, the judiciary is the place where we’re very vulnerable, and it has to be protected,” Skinner said. “It’s akin to a strike right at the heart of what this country is when something happens in court.”