On guard: Law as a high-risk profession

Maryland Daily Record
Volume: 5 Number: 415
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

The letter came on business stationery and contained a chilling threat.

Litigant Melvin E. Gibbs, who had an employment case dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz, wrote to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and implied that he was going to kill the judge.

"[W]ith an average hunting rifle, I can split a cereal box in half; the box turned sideways," wrote Gibbs, a North Carolina lawyer with an address in Silver Spring. I can acquire a target at 800 yards with a M-16 (.222) and at more than 1,000 yards with a 7 mm."

Federal marshals arrested Gibbs, said Baltimore-based U.S. Marshal Rick Henry, who is tasked with keeping judges safe. Gibbs was convicted of sending the threatening letter and sentenced to more than a year in prison, though his attorney, Tony Martin, said Gibbs never meant to hurt Motz and regrets what he did.

It seems every Maryland lawyer or judge has a story like Motz's or knows someone who does.

There's Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr., who became the target of a defendant's apparent voodoo curse. There's former Prince George's County assistant public defender Clayton Aarons, now a prosecutor, whose client knocked him to the courtroom floor during a sentencing hearing, sending him on medical leave for months.

According to Henry, there's the federal judge's wife who ate candy that arrived with a friend's return address but almost died because the sweets, actually sent by someone who had come before her husband, were poisoned.

There are the numerous judges and attorneys who have had disgruntled criminal defendants or civil litigants try to have them killed.

The killings earlier this year of a federal judge's husband and mother in Chicago by a disgruntled medical malpractice litigant; and of an Atlanta judge, court reporter and sheriff's deputy, allegedly by a rape defendant, spotlighted courthouse security and what some say is an increase in threats and violence against legal professionals.

After 32 years in the law, "if [someone] were to ask me, 'what's the biggest change?' - the gratuitous violence, there's not a doubt in the world," said Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Dana M. Levitz, a former prosecutor who was the target of a murder-for-hire plot a few years ago.

"People seem to have less respect for authority. They seem to have less respect for human beings, and certainly there's no doubt in the world that we live in a more violent environment, judges and lawyers do, than 30 years ago."

Personal responsibility

That's the same message Henry conveyed when he spoke to a conference of circuit court judges at their annual meeting at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis last month.

People have less respect for judges and the court system than they used to, he said. That means those in what has become a high-risk profession need to take responsibility for their safety.

Install an alarm system in your home, he urged the judges. Keep a document on file with the sheriff's office listing your children's names, your doctor's contact information and what medicines you take.

Use the courthouse as your mailing address so all your mail is screened. Make sure county control has your cell phone number on file in case you need to call 911.

"Remember that hair rising on the back of your neck," Henry told them. "If that happens, something's the matter."

He set the judges murmuring when he pointed out that there was shockingly little security at the Senate building that day, considering there were 150 judges on the premises.

Adequate security is the best answer to the increase in violence against legal professionals, according to Harold J. Bursztajn, a psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Medical School Program in Psychiatry and the Law.

Bursztajn, an advocate of installing high-tech cameras in all courtrooms, said people who threaten or encourage violence against judges are either "absolute paranoid psychotics" or "cold-blooded killers, sociopaths."

He attributed the increase in threats and actual violence to the Internet, saying every threatening blog post or judge-baiting neo-Nazi Web site contributes to a "climate of hatred."

Bursztajn pointed to World Church of the Creator leader Matthew Hale, who encouraged his followers to kill Chicago federal Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow after she ruled, on remand, that the white supremacist group could not keep its name, which was already copyrighted by another group.

After Lefkow's husband and mother were shot to death in the family's home earlier this year, suspicion immediately fell on Hale's group. Although the murders were apparently committed by Bart Ross, a suicidal former litigant with no connection to the World Church of the Creator, Hale's words could have made it easier for Ross to consider killing the judge, Bursztajn said.

In his office at the federal courthouse in Baltimore a few weeks after the judicial conference, Henry said most people who threaten judges are harmless, and many of those who actually commit violence, like Ross, give no warning.

Still, he said, "you never want to take one lightly, because the one you take lightly is going to be the one who takes action."

Not-so-civil litigants

Many threats do not come from criminal defendants, but from people involved in civil cases, Henry said. Someone accused of a crime stands to lose his freedom, but someone who has just filed for bankruptcy could lose his or her standing in the community, which can be even more devastating.

Family law cases can be the worst, lawyers and judges agree. Take an ordinary, seemingly grounded person and take his or her children away, and that person may be tempted to hurt the judge or lawyer who made it happen.

"If I had to pick between having security in a criminal case or a domestic case, I'd rather have the sheriff's deputies there in the domestic case," Levitz said.

Barbara R. Trader, a Salisbury attorney and head of the Maryland State Bar Association's Family Law Section, told of a recent case in which she was representing the wife in a custody dispute. According to charging documents from district court in Wicomico County, the husband allegedly told people at a domestic counseling session that he planned to kidnap the judge who limited his access to his children.

And Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. of the Court of Special Appeals said that in 35 years as a prosecutor, private attorney and judge, the worst threat to his safety came not from a criminal defendant, but from a litigant wrangling with his sister over their father's will.

After Murphy, then a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, ruled in the woman's favor, John T. Klauenberg tried to hire someone to shoot Murphy. He was convicted of the attempted murder-for-hire, found not criminally responsible and committed to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital.

"My recollection over the years is . that guns have been produced and violent outbursts injuring people have occurred more frequently in domestic cases than in criminal cases," Murphy said.

Attack on justice

To some people concerned about the safety of legal professionals, not every jurisdiction is doing all it should to protect them.

Levitz, for instance, said that although he feels the Baltimore County sheriff's office does a fine job on security, some of his colleagues in other Maryland courts - he declined to say which ones - are "just not as comfortable with their security."

Baltimore City Circuit Court employees have long complained about what they see as inadequate security there, mentioning sheriff's deputies escorting prisoners down Lexington Street to the courthouse as well as an insufficient number of security cameras.

And in a 2004 report, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General criticized the U.S. Marshals Service for not protecting judges well enough, finding that the service often took too long to assess the seriousness of threats against judges and relied on outdated information to do so. The report also faulted the Marshals Service for failing to share intelligence among its districts and with the FBI and relying on outdated standards for protecting judges.

In August, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates urged Congress to order the Marshals Service to consult with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, to appropriate enough money for the Marshals Service and to allow judges to redact personal information on their financial disclosure statements. The ABA also urged government entities and Web sites to remove a judge's home address or other information at the judge's request, and pledged support for a "National Clearinghouse on Federal and State Court Security."

The written recommendations were based on a report by the ABA's Justice Center, which was, in turn, motivated by the deaths in Chicago and Atlanta.

John M. Vittone, chairman of the Justice Center, said the killings prompted the center to act on a situation court workers across the country have long known about.

"It just brought home in a very short term problems that the court system has faced largely out of the view of the public for a long, long time," said Vittone, chief judge at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Congress is now considering new laws to protect the court system, though Vittone said progress is slow because the same people in the Senate who work on court security are also responsible for holding hearings on the president's Supreme Court nominees.

And Marshals Service spokesman Don Hines said the service is now making progress on the Inspector General's 2004 recommendations, some of which were easily solved by updating formal policies. Not all the recommendations have been instituted yet, he said.

"We are working with the Inspector General's office, along with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, to find comprehensive solutions to each of the items that they felt required attention," Hines said.

Bursztajn said the safety of those who administer the justice system should be on everyone's mind.

"Our society is founded on justice," Bursztajn said. "If justice is being intimidated, then it's really tearing at the fabric of our social capital. It has implications beyond really the safety of judges. "It has implications for what kind of society are we going to be."