In killings' wake, urgency to protect courts

From bullet-proof benches to 'shockbelts' for dangerous defendants, courts take precautions.

Before he even donned his robe on Friday, Fulton County Judge Rowland Barnes voiced worries about the recalcitrant defendant in his court.

To start what quickly became one of the darkest days in the history of the US judiciary, the defendant - a former college-football linebacker named Brian Nichols - made good on his vow not to take a verdict in his rape case "lying down." News reports cite the following chain of events: Mr. Nichols, who was not handcuffed, overwhelmed a deputy sheriff escorting him to court and stole her gun. He then ran into the 8th Floor Atlanta courtroom, where he shot and killed Judge Rowland and court reporter Julie Brandau. Outside, he killed a sheriff's deputy, then beat a journalist in the parking garage and demanded his car. For 26 tense hours, Nichols was on the run, but on Saturday he peacefully surrendered after the city's largest-ever manhunt.

Coming only 11 days after the shooting deaths of a federal judge's husband and mother, apparently by a disgruntled plaintiff in Chicago, the Fulton County Courthouse murders underscore growing worries about the protection of America's justice system. The circumstances around the Atlanta killings - taken in the context of some 700 reported threats against US judges each year - raise a host of questions about everything from the influx of mentally troubled people into the justice system to the way guns are handled by deputies.

Yet there's also concern about going too far: Some wonder if these attacks on the judiciary, and the intense courthouse fortification that could follow, might turn halls of justice into fortresses, and judges into robed "ghosts" of the public square.

"We have federal judges telling us that security outside their courthouses is insufficient and county and state judges telling us that security inside the courthouse is insufficient," says Allan Sobel, director of the American Judicature Society in Des Moines, Iowa. "The question is whether we turn courthouses into armed camps and isolate them even more from the public."

These breaches of the bench are causing security reviews in courthouses across the country. From King County in Washington State to Leake County in Mississippi, judges are reexamining safety procedures and regulations - and finding many of them gathering dust. Adding to the challenge, security standards differ dramatically from courthouse to courthouse, from circuit to circuit.

In Cincinnati, a judge raised concerns last week about the practice of letting certain people into the courthouse without sending them through the metal detector. In Lufkin, Texas, a secretary for a local lawyer and former judge was blunt with her opinion on safety at the local courthouse: "Protection? What protection?"

In Wapello County, Iowa, a county supervisor finds that security measures installed in 2001 are already being overlooked - and that panic buttons haven't been tested in three years. And in Mississippi, there's a renewed call for stricter security, including installing cameras aimed at judges' parking spaces.

Many courthouses, especially federal ones after the Oklahoma City bombing, are as tough to get into as Fort Knox. The new federal courthouse in Seattle, which opened last year, is part of a wave of courthouse fortification: Its bullet-proof benches are shielded with Kevlar.

In contrast, many state and county courthouses, like Fulton County's, are seen as undermanned and overburdened, hot and crowded, with hundreds of cases adjudicated daily.

For those situations, says Robert Siciliano, a security expert in Boston, safety is all about specifics and vigilance.

The day before the Atlanta shootings, the judge and prosecutors in the Nichols case had asked for extra security after investigators found homemade knives in each of the defendant's shoes.

Now, officials are trying to understand why, even given those concerns, Nichols was guarded by a lone woman officer, many years his senior and far smaller.

Already, experts are pointing to trimmed budgets and undermanned courtrooms as part of the problem. Moreover, a study last year by the Justice Department found that US Marshals weren't meeting their own standards for following up on threats to judges.

"Lack of resources are a huge part of this," says Mr. Siciliano. "I'm surprised this kind of thing doesn't happen more."

Despite worries in Chicago about a larger white-supremacist conspiracy against Judge Joan Lefkow, the murders of her husband and mother seem instead to have been orchestrated by a troubled plaintiff in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

In Atlanta, a man with a troubled past and little to lose took the ultimate chance to get even with an arbiter of his future.

To some experts, the two incidents show not only a growing willingness of defendants to threaten and challenge the judiciary, but clear opportunities to strike.

"It's amazing how people in the legal system are like an open book. Anyone can pretty much get to them," says Siciliano. "Even celebrities in the limelight are stalked, but they're not making decisions for people's lives. Judges have higher profiles and are much more important to society than any celebrity."

Still, a lockdown of the nation's courthouses may not solve everything. Even small changes and technological advances could help bridge security gaps. For example, while Nichols's hands were free so as not to prejudice the jury in his case, a new "shockbelt" could have been worn underneath his clothes, says Richard Soloway, a national security expert in Amityville, N.Y. Tasers may eventually replace guns for deputies immediately involved with inmates. On Friday, the American Bar Association called for making judges exempt from having personal information published - a measure that some say would protect their out-of-robe identities, but which critics say would turn them into quasi-citizens, or "ghosts."

In the aftermath of the Atlanta violence, security experts have worried about how a failure to protect judges could turn an independent judiciary into an intimidated one, which many say would constitute a direct threat to the republic. Indeed, concerns about over-insulating the judiciary from society are now giving way to finding pragmatic ways to protect America's dark-robed arbiters.

"There's a randomness about it that is terrifying, but we have to keep in mind that [courthouse violence] is still very rare, and, for the most part, our justice system operates day in and day out without major tragedies." says Mr. Sobel. "Still, having two incidents so close together, it's not as easy to write them off as freak incidents."

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