Each day at local courthouses, they arrive. Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters, handcuffed and shackled, coming through the...
Each day at local courthouses, they arrive.
Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters, handcuffed and shackled, coming through the back way.
Family and friends, grudge holders and witnesses, aggrieved former defendants and plaintiffs walking through the main door.
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Through a metal detector. Into the courtroom.
At the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, about 10,000 people pass through daily, says the sheriff’s office.
The fatal shootings yesterday in Atlanta of Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, a court reporter and a deputy, and the wounding of another deputy, serve as painful examples of the risk of carrying out justice, said Eric Robertson, the U.S. marshal for Western Washington.
It’s shocking, at least to those who work in the courts, when violence erupts in the very place intended for “peaceful resolution,” said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff to King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng. “But I guess there are no guarantees when dealing with a man who is desperate.”
In the Atlanta case, Brian Nichols was in the middle of retrial on charges of rape and false imprisonment when he is said to have grabbed a deputy’s gun in the courtroom and started shooting.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik said Seattle’s law-enforcement community got its most recent wake-up call not so much from the killings in Atlanta or Feb. 28’s fatal shootings of the husband and mother of U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago.
Lasnik said the 2001 killing of Thomas Wales, a 49-year-old prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, showed, “If somebody’s after you, they’re after you.”
Wales was struck by several shots fired through the basement window of his Queen Anne home while he was sitting at his computer. No charges have been filed, but investigators believe the killing was related to his work.
Seattle’s new federal courthouse, which opened last year, feels much safer than the old one, Lasnik said. Judges, for instance, now have a separate parking area and use separate elevators.
At the King County Courthouse, security measures now in place, including metal detectors, were installed after Timothy Blackwell fatally shot his estranged wife, Susana Blackwell, 25, and two of her friends there in 1995. Susana Blackwell, a Filipina who met Blackwell after she was included in a magazine for potential American suitors, was pregnant and in proceedings to divorce Blackwell when he killed her.
King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Richard Eadie said yesterday that security is sound at the courthouse, but the Atlanta shootings are a reminder “to look carefully at what we are doing and at what we could be doing.”
Among the additional measures being considered, Eadie said, is the use of Tasers.
Eadie said he did not recall specific threats to judges, but that almost all have received worrisome letters or e-mails.
“We get mail that often shows a lack of coherent thinking and a lot of anger against the judge or the legal system,” Eadie said. “And it’s a challenge to know whether it’s serious or not and whether one should feel threatened.”
In 1999, a Spokane man who was already serving time for assault and selling methamphetamine was sentenced to an additional 8 ½ years for threatening a judge, according to news accounts in The Spokesman Review. John James Hartz Jr. was convicted of threatening to kill Superior Court Judge Robert Austin in March 1998 after telling deputies, “The next time I see [Austin] will be through the cross-hairs of my 10-powered Leopold scope.”
A Leopold scope is used with hunting rifles.
Hartz’s lawyer argued that his client had made an instinctive outburst, not a true threat.
In 1993, when a man vowed to kill a judge in Snohomish County, three bulletproof vests were purchased for its judges. Snohomish County Court administrator Dick Carlson said the vests are kept on hand and judges occasionally wear them.
In Seattle, after a routine but timely meeting with security personnel yesterday, Eadie said judges will start forwarding disturbing correspondence directly to the sheriff’s office instead of to prosecutors for review. The sheriff’s office can more quickly determine the credibility of any threats, he said.
Meanwhile, King County Superior Court Judge Michael Hayden said he’s never felt personally threatened.
“It could happen. The guards here are armed and it’s possible. Sure,” Hayden said. “But how often does it really happen? I think our sheriffs do a pretty good job. I don’t feel at risk.”
King County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Bradshaw said most everyone is subject to the “whim and caprice of the twisted minds. … I don’t feel any more or less at risk than the normal citizen.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com