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How judges cope with everyday threats on the job

By , / March 4, 2005


For Judge Gayle Nachtigal, the scariest threat was the one not aimed directly at her: A man she had sentenced to prison told her he knew the names of her children - then rattled them off. "That made me more concerned than someone who just says 'I'm going to get you,' " says the circuit-court judge in Oregon.

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Nickolas Murnion, a prosecutor in Garfield County, Montana, had sheriff's deputies protect him for a while when an illegal court of Montana Freemen, the antigovernment militia, promised to hang him for his "crimes" and put a $1 million bounty on him and several court officials.

While actual assaults on judges and lawyers are quite rare, the everyday life of the men and women who work in the nation's courtrooms can be marked by a constant tension.

On the criminal side, judges face the worry that their life-changing verdicts will come back to haunt them. Across the board, cases often involve violent or unstable people, or family members caught up in emotional disputes. For those looking to vent their anger, a judge or prosecutor can be an obvious target.

Now the murders of a Chicago judge's family members have many who work in courtrooms reliving tense moments - and calling for greater efforts to ensure their safety.

"I would be surprised if a judge doing criminal cases, or family-law cases, or certain civil cases, hadn't had somebody make a threat against them," says Judge Nachtigal, president of the American Judges Association. "Are they all going to act on them? Probably not. But you do take precautions."

For the moment, of course, the anxiety about security is something of a cautionary tale. Authorities haven't determined that the slaying of the husband and mother of US District Court Judge Joan Lefkow was the result of her job, though early signs point in that direction. If that does turn out to be the case, it would be the first time a judge's family members were killed as a result of a decision he or she made - showing how rare it is.

Nonetheless, the incident is prompting something of a nationwide reassessment of how vulnerable judges are and what precautions they can take. For Nachtigal, those steps included installing a burglar alarm, keeping her address out of the phone book, and, when she received the threat about her children, talking with their principal and asking the school to refrain from giving out their names.

Often, the judges and prosecutors most at risk are those who, like Murnion and Lefkow - who presided over a copyright-infringement case against a white-supremacy group - take on cases involving nontraditional groups with nothing to lose and no "rules": terrorists, hate groups, crime rings.

"At the time I became a prosecutor I definitely did not appreciate that risk in the way I later came to understand it," says one former federal attorney who prosecuted an Albanian drug and murder-for-hire ring in the 1980s. One of the members he indicted took out a contract on his life, and for five months he and his wife lived with US marshals. Colleagues who prosecuted or presided over organized-crime cases and the first attack on the World Trade Center experienced similar threats, he says.

"I think it's an intractable problem," the former prosecutor says. "When you have groups - whether terrorists or insular nontraditional organized crime, the deterrent value is just not there."

Even after the months of round-the-clock protection were over, he took precautions he never would have anticipated: learning to use a weapon, listing his address and phone under a different name, and periodically driving around with the marshals to make it appear he was still under their protection.

Today, when he hears about the Chicago murders, he says, "I certainly empathize in ways that very few people can."

Federal judges and prosecutors can, like that prosecutor, get protection from US marshals when a threat is deemed serious. In 2003, marshals gave protection to 20 such individuals, 12 of whom got round-the-clock details. Lefkow, who at that time had been threatened by Matthew Hale, the leader of a now-defunct white-supremacy group, was among them.

But such protection can also take its toll. Lefkow, together with the marshals guarding her, called off her detail after a matter of weeks, deciding the threat was no longer serious. And the former prosecutor speaks of the awkwardness of sharing a small apartment - with few actual partitions - with both his wife and the marshals. Murnion, the Montana attorney, says he finally wanted his life back.