An unprecedented wave of targeted assassination-style attacks on US justice system officials in California, Texas, Colorado, and West Virginia has rattled a US community of 40,000 big-city and small-town prosecutors, many whom have begun taking extra precautions as they go about their daily courthouse routines.
Indeed, Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says the shootings of two prosecutors in Kaufman County, Texas, the assassination of Colorado’s top prison official, the broad daylight murder of a small-town West Virginia sheriff, and the targeting of police by ex-LAPD cop Chris Dorner amount to a rare but alarming “attack on the rule of law.”
One lesson to be drawn from the burst of attacks, he says, is that “prosecutors really aren’t lawyers, but warriors.”
So far, authorities have not linked the series of murders, but the Colorado and Texas attacks appeared to have a point in common. In Colorado, a member of a white supremacist prison gang, 211 Crew, was arrested on Thursday in connection to the March 19 shooting of prison chief Tom Clements. While in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry vowed to “hunt” down the at-large conspirators – potentially Mexican drug gangs or neo-Nazi prison gangs, or a combination of both – behind the Jan. 31 murder of Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse and the March 27 double murder of District Attorney Mike McClelland and his wife, Cynthia.
In West Virginia, police continued to search for a motive for the assassination of Sheriff Eugene Crum by a former coal miner who may have had mental health problems.
Targeted attacks on members of the justice system occur with some regularity, but researchers say the recent uptick is significant.
The first three years of the last decade saw six targeted law enforcement attacks compared with 15 in the first three years of the 2010s, according to Glenn McGovern, the author of a March 1 paper called “Murdered Justice: An Exploratory Study of Targeted Attacks on the Justice Community.”
And while an average year sees one or two assassination attempts on justice officials in the US, there have been six such attacks in the first three months of 2013, resulting in six deaths.
“Two attacks on two individuals within the same organization in such a short span of time – I’ve never seen that,” Mr. McGovern told Yahoo! News of the attacks on the Texas prosecutors. “I’ve only seen that in Sicily, Colombia, and Mexico, but never here.”
Some national security experts say the Texas murders may be part of a drug-war offensive, which would make it different from the predominant motive in attacks on justice officials: revenge for prosecutions.
“This is a significant point of escalation in the crisis” meant to send a message, according to an unnamed security expert quoted by Breitbart News. “This type of high-profile targeting of public officials is a classic insurgent tactic. Its escalating use inside the US shows a complete lack of fear of consequences and demonstrates the fundamental shift in the strategic landscape that has already occurred. … They are waging a war.”
The DA murders have already chilled the justice system, with one US attorney this week citing the targeted attacks as a reason for stepping down from the prosecution of a white supremacist gang member.
“The reality is, if someone wants to kill a prosecutor, they can kill a prosecutor,” says Mr. Burns. “We don’t have security details.”
A warning from the Texas Department of Public Safety about possible “retaliation” attacks by Aryan Brotherhood members sparked many officers and federal agents to scrub their personal details from the Internet.
“They are going to find out things about you before they do it,” one Texas police officer who had received threats told Yahoo! News. “Don’t commit yourself to a routine. Watch your mail and your neighborhood. Be aware of anything.”
District Attorney McClelland, too, was aware of the threats before he was killed. In an interview before his death, McClelland cited a bill proposed in the Texas legislature that would allow prosecutors to open-carry weapons, like police officers, as a “way to do something” to protect justice system officials.
Meanwhile, prosecutors from across the country have flooded the National District Attorneys Association with calls of support, and vows to maintain their professional vigil, while watching their backs.
“You check your case files, you try to have a sense of when threats are real and when they’re not, and if it’s a real threat you contact law enforcement,” says Burns. “The fact is these are things prosecutors deal with every day across America.”