Killings Raise Concerns About Court Security

The fatal shootings in an Atlanta courthouse and the slayings of a federal judge's family members in Chicago underscore the fact that judges in many parts of the country deal with security threats on a daily basis.

In Chicago today, Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheehan displayed for the media an array of weapons that guards confiscated from people trying to enter the criminal courts building.

"We never know what we're going to find," Sheehan said.

Switchblades, shivs and shanks present some of the dangers that confront people who work in courts across the country each day, and that does not include threatening letters, e-mails or telephone calls.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which protects federal judges, counted 700 threats last year and expects 800 this year -- up from just 200 back in the 1980s.

Today in Atlanta, a man on trial in a rape case shot and killed Judge Rowland Barnes and two other people, then fled the area in a carjacked vehicle. Last week, U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow returned to her Chicago home to find the bodies of her husband and mother. A man who later committed suicide during a traffic stop in Wisconsin claimed responsibility in a suicide note. Police believe he was angry because Lefkow had dismissed a suit he filed over his cancer treatment.

'The System of Last Resort'

But in the face of this gathering storm, a Justice Department study concluded that the Marshals Service -- underfunded and understaffed -- is too slow to respond to the threats.

Congress is beginning to listen.

"We really need to provide the resources and make sure they have the leadership to get the job done," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

A major part of the problem, of course, has to do with those making the threats.

Mental health professionals say mentally unstable people are increasingly going to court because traditional forms of treatment are too costly or no longer available because of budget cuts.

"The justice system is often the system of last resort," said Linda Teplin, a Northwestern University psychiatrist. "It's the court of last resort for many people with severe mental disorders."

U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour's courtroom serves as an example of what it may take to ensure security. It has a panic button, security cameras and a bulletproof bench.

"If something happens, the judge has the option of dropping down to the floor and being in a relatively bulletproof area," Coughenour said.

ABC News' Dean Reynolds filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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