Recent Violence Spotlights Judges' Vulnerability

As a trial judge in Colorado for 22 years, Bill Dressel presided over cases involving everything from felonies to civil disputes and family issues. And though there was potential for anger and violence with parties involved in each type of case, he didn't dwell on the risk -- even after a distraught father showed up at his house one Christmas Day.

"It becomes something you become very lax about," Dressel said. "You really don't think about it till something comes up that raises a concern."

But as two recent cases have shown, those on the front lines of the judicial system can be vulnerable to violence that creeps from the confines of the courtroom into their personal lives. In Atlanta on Friday, Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy were killed when Brian Nichols, on trial for rape and other charges, wrested a gun from a deputy and opened fire, authorities said.

On Feb. 28, the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow were slain in her Chicago home. Police believe they were killed by electrician Bart Ross, who was apparently angry over Lefkow's dismissal of his medical malpractice case. Ross killed himself during a traffic stop in Wisconsin.

While rare, the threat of violence against jurists is real, though those involved say it most often stems from domestic relations cases involving divorce, custody or abuse.

"A lot of the focus today, of course, has been on the criminal cases," said Gayle Nachtigal, president of the American Judges Association and a circuit court judge in Oregon. "Historically, the most dangerous kind of case a state court judge could be dealing with is a domestic case. That's where emotions are really out of control."

Vigilance Always Needed

Dressel said part of the reason judges have become complacent is the added security that was put in place in most courthouses after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including metal detectors and other screening devices. Now president of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., which provides judicial education and professional development for judges, he said judges are taught to follow the U.S. marshals' training guidebook, which prepares them for what to do if a violent event were to occur.

There are some basic precautions that all judges should take, Dressel said, such as bringing in extra security for high-profile cases, not parking in spots marked with their names, traveling different routes to and from court and installing good lighting and a security system at home. "You don't want to scare your family, but alert them, tell them to be vigilant," he said.

Dressel knows firsthand the importance of safety measures. He had a special number to call local police in an emergency, which he said he used about three times.

One time, he said, an "extremely distraught" man involved in a custody dispute showed up at his home on Christmas Day and tried to get him to come out and look at his van, which contained bicycles that the man's former wife would not allow him to give to his children. Dressel's wife called police as the judge calmly talked with the man from his doorway until they arrived. But Dressel said there was really nothing protecting him if the man had had a weapon.

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