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Court Officials Turn to Guards, Identity Shields, Weapons to Handle New Threats

When a defendant threatened to blow up his house, Judge Michael Cicconetti and his family left their home in Ohio for a week.
When a defendant threatened to blow up his house, Judge Michael Cicconetti and his family left their home in Ohio for a week. (By Tony Dejak -- Associated Press)
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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

Threats against the nation's judges and prosecutors have sharply increased, prompting hundreds to get 24-hour protection from armed U.S. marshals. Many federal judges are altering their routes to work, installing security systems at home, shielding their addresses by paying bills at the courthouse or refraining from registering to vote. Some even pack weapons on the bench.

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The problem has become so pronounced that a high-tech "threat management" center recently opened in Crystal City, where a staff of about 25 marshals and analysts monitor a 24-hour number for reporting threats, use sophisticated mapping software to track those being threatened and tap into a classified database linked to the FBI and CIA.

"I live with a constant heightened sense of awareness," said John R. Adams, a federal judge in Ohio who began taking firearms classes after a federal judge's family was slain in Chicago and takes a pistol to the courthouse on weekends. "If I'm going to carry a firearm, I'd better know how to use it."

The threats and other harassing communications against federal court personnel have more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 to 1,278, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. Worried federal officials blame disgruntled defendants whose anger is fueled by the Internet; terrorism and gang cases that bring more violent offenders into federal court; frustration at the economic crisis; and the rise of the "sovereign citizen" movement -- a loose collection of tax protesters, white supremacists and others who don't respect federal authority.

Much of the concern was fueled by the slaying of U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow's husband and mother in their Chicago home in 2005 and a rampage 11 days later by an Atlanta rape suspect, who killed a judge, the court stenographer and a deputy. Last year, several pipe bombs exploded outside the federal courthouse in San Diego, and a drug defendant wielding a razor blade briefly choked a federal prosecutor during sentencing in Brooklyn, N.Y. In March, a homicide suspect attacked a judge in a California courtroom and was shot to death by police.

"Judges today have dangerous jobs, and that danger has many dimensions," said David Sellers, a spokesman for the administrative office of the U.S. Courts. "They are worried about security and safety 24 hours a day."

Although attacks on federal court personnel have not increased, the explosion of vitriolic threats has prompted a growing law enforcement crackdown aimed at preventing them. The U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges and prosecutors, says several hundred require 24-hour guard for days, weeks or months at a time each year, depending on the case.

"We have to make sure that every judge and prosecutor can go to work every day and carry out the rule of law,'' said Michael Prout, assistant director of judicial security for the marshals, who have trained hundreds of police and deputies to better protect local court officials, an effort that began last year with Northern Virginia and Maryland officers.

"It's the core of our civil liberties,'' Prout said.

State court officials are seeing the same trend, although no numbers are available. "There's a higher level of anger, whether it's defendants or their families," said Timothy Fautsko, who coordinates security education for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg and said threats are coming from violent offenders along with divorce, probate and other civil litigants.

The threats are emerging in cases large and small, on the Internet, by telephone, in letters and in person. In the District, two men have pleaded not guilty to charges of vowing to kill a federal prosecutor and kidnap her adult son if she didn't drop a homicide investigation. The judge in the CIA leak case got threatening letters when he ordered Vice President Richard B. Cheney's former chief of staff to prison. A man near Richmond was charged with mailing threats to a prosecutor over three traffic offenses. The face of a federal judge in the District was put in a rifle's cross hairs on the Internet after he issued a controversial environmental ruling, judicial sources said.

Hundreds of threats cascaded into the chambers of John M. Roll, the chief U.S. district judge in Arizona, in February after he allowed a lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against a rancher to go forward. "They cursed him out, threatened to kill his family, said they'd come and take care of him. They really wanted him dead," said a law enforcement official who heard the calls -- which came from as far as Richmond and Baltimore -- but spoke on condition of anonymity because no one has been charged.


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