Courtroom violence can erupt at any time. So much is at stake, and emotions are at a fever pitch. Sometimes it's the victim's loved ones seeking personal revenge. Other times it's the defendants lashing out at lawyers in their own desperate bid for vengeance. And sitting in the middle of all this mayhem is the man or woman in the black robes.
Small-town judges like Michael Cicconetti of Painesville, Ohio, are not immune to these attacks. Judge Mike, as he is known, is an all-around regular guy. He's a great dad and a good cook who has gone bowling with the same league every Monday night for the past 36 years.
But when Cicconetti goes to work, no one thinks of him as a regular guy. He dons the judge's black robe of authority and has the final word. He is the city's only judge, and he metes out justice with a firm yet compassionate hand.
"You're dealing with people, and you're helping people, as much as you're putting other people in jail," Cicconetti said.
No one was more shocked than Cicconetti when, last summer, detectives urgently asked him to meet them in a parking lot and pulled out a small audiotape recorder.
"They said, 'I want you to listen to this,'" Cicconetti said. "And I heard someone saying that they wanted to bomb my house they were going to come in and kill me and my family. I go, 'whoa.'"
Police had uncovered an elaborate plot to kill not only Judge Mike, but also the mayor, the local prosecutor and the police chief. The alleged perpetrators? Joseph Sands and Dawn Holin, a couple whom Cicconetti had sentenced to a few days of jail time and a $150 fine for failing to file local taxes on their auto repair shop.
"If you asked me to give a list of 30 or 40 people you think might do something to harm [me], they would not have been on that list," Cicconetti said. "They wouldn't have been close to the top 100 on that list."
Threats against judges have quadrupled in the last decade. There were more than 800 threats last year against federal judges alone, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. What's going on? The answer just might be found behind bars.
Ronald Dudas is an inmate at the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He's had revenge on his mind not just once, but twice.
"You come in here, and you're around 15… other inmates [are] all saying the same thing, 'I hate the judge, I can't believe he gave me this, I'd like to see something happen to him, I'd like to break his legs,'" Dudas said.
While in jail, Dudas tried to hire hit men to hurt two different judges and a police officer.
"As an inmate and as a convict and as a convicted felon, we don't want to accept the responsibility most of the times," he said. "We want to pass that off to somebody else."
Dudas admits that often that "somebody else" is the judge who handed down the sentence, simply because he or she is the last stop on the line before the inmate gets locked up and all power is taken away.
"You get so frustrated that anger just -- it spills out from every pore that you have," Dudas said. "You're consumed by this, this thought of revenge."