March 14, 2005 — -- 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."
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.
Nachtigal said the American Judges Association advocates similar personal precautions, and there often have been times when she took extra steps at work. "I have had cases where it has been identified to me that one party made threats against another party or had a propensity for acting out," she said. "I've asked for increased security in the courtroom in cases where the individual, because of the nature of the crime, required greater security."
The association surely will focus more closely on courthouse safety, she said, including how courts can prevent future incidents and who should have weapons in the courtroom. She noted that if an armed plainclothes officer were to try to intervene in a situation, it would be difficult for security to know if he or she were on their side.
In an incident such as the Atlanta shootings, the security measures in place did not prevent the suspect from overpowering a deputy and gaining a firearm. And not all courts have armed guards present.
Timm Fautsko, a Colorado court consultant who serves on the principal staff at the National Center for State Courts, said practices vary widely and are decided locally.
"There are two different opinions in terms of weapons in courtrooms," Fautsko said. "One philosophy, you want a marshal or bailiff or someone in a courtroom who is armed. A lot of judges say they do not want any weapons in their courtroom."
Jimmie Barrett, court security supervisor with the Arlington County, Va., sheriff's office and vice president of the Affiliated Court Officers and Deputies Association, said a key for protection is to assess what kinds of cases are on each day's dockets, though it's not an exact science.
"It's very subjective," he said. "It depends on each case. Obviously, with charges of capital murder, child molestations, rape, you know there are going to be sensitive issues. [With a] child custody or divorce case, it's harder to assess. You rely on attorneys."
Though they stressed that a full investigation into the Atlanta incident is needed, security experts said changes can be expected.
"Certainly, there are things that could have been done," said Harold Copus, a former FBI special agent who is president of Investigative Solutions Inc., an Atlanta security agency. "I'm sure when it's finished, all sorts of changes are going to have to occur, not only here in Atlanta but across the country.
"At a minimum, you'll see we have to have extra personnel and more screening," Copus added. "There's just no way we can allow [just] one deputy in a courtroom, especially in a criminal matter."
Mike Hodge, a retired secret service agent and former Marine who works with the security professionals group ASIS International, said officers might need more training on weapons retention, a key to courtroom safety.
"I do know that courthouses around the country do a very good job," Hodge said. "Unfortunately, this was just a very bad incident. These deputies are escorting folks every single day. It takes a lot to be completely aware at every moment."
In the meantime, cases will continue to be heard in courtrooms across the country, and judges will deal with security in their own ways.
"Some judges do take training and carry a weapon," Dressel said, "but I would say the vast, vast majority don't go to that measure to arm themselves."
He added that it's important they not dwell on unknown worst-case scenarios. "It's not a bad idea that it isn't something that's preying on a judge's mind," he said. "You're basically taught just to use some common sense."
Nachtigal said such violent incidents happen in America "very rarely -- rarely enough that it's a major news item when it happens."
Still, killings such as the Lefkow family slayings have a chilling effect since the suspect was not part of a drug cartel or hate group or something else that would raise a red flag.
"A medical malpractice case? I'll bet you this is the only one," Nachtigal said. "It's just not the kind of case that on the surface would rise to any kind of issue … that's what makes that case, to me, even scarier. It's harder to protect against the totally unexpected and totally unknown."