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Chicago slayings rattle judges

While no Tampa Bay area jurist ever has been murdered, some have been harassed, followed and publicly threatened.

Published March 7, 2005

A few years back, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Raymond Gross stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items.

"I know you. You're Judge Gross," the cashier said. "I hate you and you hate me."

The woman had appeared before Gross in family court and was unhappy with his ruling. The judge assured the woman he didn't hate her and left.

Gross was rattled, but relieved he hadn't paid for his groceries with a check or the woman would have had his address.

"Those things happen and when it happens they get your attention," Gross said. "There are people who carry grudges."

He and other local judges say the killings last week of a Chicago federal judge's family members stunned them. Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and 89-year-old mother were shot in the judge's home. Detectives are investigating the killings as possible revenge for a Lefkow decision. A white supremacist she had ruled against once plotted to kill her and is set to be sentenced next month.

The case has rekindled debate about how much public information is available on judges. Hate groups apparently had personal information about Lefkow on Web sites. In Florida, judges' addresses are removed from some public records, but remain on others.

Murders of judges or their families, however, are rare. The Lefkow deaths might be the first case in which an American judge's family may have been targeted and the judge was spared.

"It was "a little unnerving,"' Gross said.

* * *

While murder is rare, threats against judges are more common. The U.S. Marshal's Service, which provides security for 2,000 federal judges, says there are about 700 threats to federal jurists per year.

Currently there are about 20 federal judges or prosecutors under protection, about a dozen round-the-clock, said spokeswoman Mavis Dezulovich. The federal budget for judicial protection is about $486-million annually.

Courthouse officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which each spend about $11-million on security, said the judges in each county receive fewer than 50 threats per year.

They can be serious such as the death threats against Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, whose rulings on the Terri Schiavo case have upset right-to-life groups. Deputies guard Greer.

Or they can be bizarre. Gross once was threatened with a voodoo spell. Bailiffs found a decapitated chicken outside the courthouse. Gross said the curse did him no apparent harm.

Few threats lead to murder.

Though no official list of nationwide judicial killings exists, a St. Petersburg Times review has found at least 11 judicial slayings since 1970.

One of those murders occurred in Gulf County in 1987, when a man upset with an alimony hearing snuck guns into the courtroom. He shot his wife's divorce attorney and his wife's sister, then chased the judge to a restroom and shot him through the door.

The last known judicial slaying in the United States was in 1999 in Los Angeles.

While judges are bothered by the idea of judicial violence, many point out that courthouses today are more secure than ever, especially after the Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 attacks.

"If somebody wants to do it bad enough they'll find a way," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt Downey, who oversees felony criminal cases. "But I'm not going to worry about it."

Still, some judges, like Downey, have guns. He has kept a pistol in his office drawer for 20 years. In 1995, th e Times reported about half of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit's judges had a concealed weapons permit. Some said they held the permits in case a defendant or litigant came after them.

Judge Gross said he knows judges who still carry guns. The sheriff's office offers training.

Other judges across the country have high-tech alarm systems in their homes or panic rooms, so they can escape from home-invaders. And there is such a thing as a bullet-proof judge's robe.

* * *

No Tampa Bay area jurist ever has been murdered, but some have been followed, harassed and publicly threatened.

Pinellas Judge Mark Shames had to contend with a man he said harassed him for a year. The man had lost a child-custody case. On Christmas Eve 1999, the man placed gifts and toys on Shames' lawn with a note asking the judge to deliver them to his kids. The man also tried to get an untraceable gun and told a detective he would shoot Shames.

The man was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail.

In 1994, former Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez was "scared as hell" by a group that harassed him and other Florida judges. The leader of the group and six others were convicted of sending threats.

Just last week, a man accused of stalking and sending death threats to three Florida judges was arrested. The man was upset about a child-custody dispute over frozen embryos.

Criminal court might seem the most likely place for violence, but judges say that's not the case.

Downey, who has been a criminal judge for 17 years, said he has received no death threats and has been called at home by a disgruntled party just once.

Judges say it's in family court where people more frequently turn violent. Divorce proceedings and child-custody cases can leave a bruised spouse or empty-handed father at wit's end.

"The emotions are rawest there," said Gross, who serves in unified family court.

* * *

Newspaper accounts of judicial slayings can be found as early as 1874, when Arkansas attorney J.R. Aldridge shot Judge John W. Fox. The lawyer apparently was upset over remarks the judge made.

There were scattered reports of judicial murder in the decades that followed. The reports seem to become less frequent in the 1900s.

Violence against judges spiked in the late 1970s and the 1980s after people got more gutsy with guns and before security measures caught up. At least seven judges were killed from 1979 to 1989, far more than any other modern decade. Several of the slayings occurred in courtrooms.

From 1981 to 1985, threats to federal judges, prosecutors and clerks surged by 233 percent. More than 80 percent were to judges. Experts attributed the increase to toughened penalties that gave nothing-to-lose criminals incentive to attack. Judicial security improved, though not everywhere.

Some courts where shootings occurred shelved new safety plans because officials thought they were too expensive or unworkable. That included Pasco County, where a man in a divorce proceeding shot his wife to death in the courthouse foyer in 1987. After the shooting, some county officials said courthouse security was fine. It was years before substantial improvements were made.

Some security experts worry the Lefkow case could embolden others to try harming judges. In some foreign countries, usually those in the grips of political unrest or organized crime, judicial assassination is common. A judge was killed in Iraq last week and another in Kosovo last month.

"I think people will see this as a way to shock the judiciary. Hopefully that prediction is wrong," said Gilbert Skinner, a court security consultant in Michigan.

Skinner said courthouses in smaller cities are particularly vulnerable. "They hope nothing bad happens," he said.

* * *

Security officials don't like to talk specifically about how they protect judges, but in Pinellas County, access to criminal court judges' chambers was cut off years ago, even to members of the press.

Judges park in a special lot that is under video surveillance and a key card is needed to get in the entrance they use.

Pinellas County's budget for judicial and courthouse security pays for metal detectors, facial recognition technology and the salaries of 140 bailiffs. Pinellas deputies have, on occasion, also protected a judge's home round-the-clock.

Probably the most guarded Pinellas judge now is Greer, whose decisions on the Schiavo case have received international attention. Guards sometimes encourage him to eat lunch in his office.

When he does go out - as he did recently to celebrate a judicial assistant's birthday - the armed guards are with him.

But unless judges plan on shuttering themselves inside their homes or taking an armored car to work, there is always the chance someone will harass them, curse them or recognize them at the store. Judges have vowed not to let it affect their duty.

In 2003, Lefkow refused to take herself off a civil case against white supremacist Matthew Hale, even after Hale was charged with plotting her death. After the death of her husband and mother, Lefkow and her children were placed in protective custody. Still, she has pledged to return to the bench.

Judges like Gross understand her refusal to be intimidated.

"Most of us don't get caught up in that and don't become consumed by it," Gross said. "If you do, you lose your ability to effectively do your job."

--Times staff writer Bill Levesque and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from other news organizations.

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 06:01:01]

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