The murder of the husband and mother of a federal judge in Chicago this week has, in addition to shocking the city and galvanizing law enforcement...

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CHICAGO — The murder of the husband and mother of a federal judge in Chicago this week has, in addition to shocking the city and galvanizing law enforcement, become a horrific reminder of the dangers that many in the legal community face.

The motive and perpetrators may be unknown, but Chicago police are exploring leads that relate to the legal record of U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow. Prominent among them: the case of a white-supremacy organization whose leader was convicted last year for trying to solicit Lefkow’s murder.

This would be the first instance of a federal judge’s family members being killed as a result of rulings he or she made. But although assaults on prosecutors and members of the judiciary are rare, threats are increasingly common.

“There’s a natural degree of risk that comes with any judicial decision,” says Dave Turk, a historian with the U.S. Marshals Service, in charge of protecting 2,000 federal judges and magistrates. “Judges and prosecutors are your focal points.”

There are many marshals and other law officers in federal courthouses to provide protection for judges and others. But judges get no special protection once they leave the courthouse unless a specific threat arises.

24-hour watch in 2003

Lefkow has confronted the risk before. She has been one of the few judges in recent years to warrant a 24-hour security detail for several weeks, in early 2003. In that case, Matthew Hale, leader of the neo-Nazi group formerly called the World Church of the Creator, was convicted of trying to arrange Lefkow’s murder with a man who turned out to be an FBI informant.

When Lefkow’s husband, Michael, and her mother were found shot to death in her basement, suspicion immediately turned once again to members of Hale’s group, although no concrete evidence has yet surfaced to indicate their guilt.

“What’s clear is that the members of the World Church of the Creator have been involved in a huge amount of criminal violence over the years,” says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks more than 700 hate groups around the nation.

But detectives are also looking at other possible connections for the murders. Nothing was taken from the house, and both victims were wearing jewelry, so a random robbery seems unlikely. Police are scouring the thousands of past cases, unrelated to Hale, that Lefkow and her husband, a lawyer, handled.

Evaluating threats

The fact that judges cross dangerous people is one reason the U.S. Marshals Service was created in 1789; protecting federal judges, prosecutors and trial witnesses is their oldest mission.

These days, about 700 threats or “inappropriate communications” are logged against judicial members every year. With each one, an assessment is made as to the level of danger and the actions required, Turk says. They also consider input from the judge affected, who may not want the inconvenience of a security team.

In 2003, the agency provided 20 protective details for judges and attorneys, 12 of which were round-the-clock. All federal courthouses have metal detectors, and some in the judiciary keep panic buttons or escape hatches nearby.

But it’s not always enough. In recent decades, three federal judges have been killed:

• In 1979, U.S. District Judge John Wood was slain by a hired killer allegedly connected to a Colombian drug-smuggling case the judge was trying.

• In 1988, U.S. District Judge Richard Daronco was shot in his back yard by the father of a plaintiff in a dismissed sexual-discrimination case.

• In 1989, federal Appeals Court Judge Robert Vance was killed by a mail bomb. In that case, a civil-rights attorney was also killed, and the whole circuit was put under guard, says Turk.

The risks of the job are “something you have to be constantly aware of,” says North Carolina State Court of Appeals Judge Sanford Steelman. “You do have to take certain steps to protect your family and yourself. At the same time … federal courts have a lot more security for their judges than do state courts.”

Hate groups unfettered

In addition to highlighting the judiciary’s security risks, the Lefkow case is bringing renewed attention to white-supremacy groups. The crime comes at a potentially dangerous time for hate groups, says criminologist Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“Most of the old guard that helped found the neo-Nazi movement in the United States are either dead or incapacitated,” says Levin. This includes Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations and William Pierce of the National Alliance. Others, such as Ku Klux Klansman Lewis Beam and Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance, have seen their influence wane, in many cases because victims have filed successful lawsuits.

At the same time, notes Levin, there is a core of true believers inspired by calls for a violent “leadership resistance.” So while the movement may have contracted with the removal of its traditional leaders (as well as with internal squabbling over who would succeed them), it was also those leaders who often acted as a check on violent behavior.

“What we have now is a core of people who are unrestrained,” he says.

Other experts agree.

“The ideology of hard-core white supremacists today is a desperate, defensive ideology, one dominated by the Fourteen Words slogan: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,’ ” says Mark Pitcavage, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League. “They have convinced themselves that now … the white race is threatened.”

For now, until it can be determined how or whether the killings relate to her job as a judge, Lefkow and her family are once again under 24-hour protection.

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.