The ex-girlfriend of a man being sentenced for murder yesterday suddenly rose from the audience in D.C. Superior Court and attempted to attack him with a pair of scissors, sparking a chaotic, profanity-laced scene in which a deputy marshal was cut in the hand while attempting to restrain her, authorities said.
As Melvin Brown's sentencing was getting under way, Falah O. Joe, 22, allegedly raised her hand, wielding a pair of six-inch scissors, and began walking toward the defendant, uttering a series of expletives. Deputy Marshal Shawn McMahon, the lone marshal in the courtroom, spotted Joe and called out a warning.
"You ain't nobody," Joe barked to McMahon, according to a court transcript.
"Get -- yo, call 'em. She's got a knife! She's got a knife!" McMahon said, referring to the scissors. The transcript said people in the courtroom were screaming.
McMahon struggled with Joe before he used a chair to pin her into a corner, according to Leah Gurowitz, a court spokeswoman. Joe then was taken into custody.
After help arrived, several officers escorted Joe to a holding cell inside the court, Gurowitz said. McMahon was taken to a hospital for a puncture wound of the hand.
According to the transcript, McMahon initially wasn't certain he was hurt. When he realized he was wounded, he declared, "This [expletive] got a knife, man. She cut me." Then he wondered how it could have happened. "How she walking through here with a [expletive] knife, man?"
Officials said it was the first incident in memory in which a weapon was used in D.C. Superior Court, and they said additional screening precautions will be put in place at the building's entrance. Marshals already use metal detectors in an effort to prevent any of the courthouse's 10,000 daily visitors from smuggling in weapons. In 1996, a defendant in a wheelchair lunged at a government witness with a homemade knife in nearby U.S. District Court, stabbing her in the chest. The witness was not seriously hurt.
Yesterday's scuffle in Judge Judith Retchin's third-floor courtroom apparently lasted several minutes. Retchin, who declined to comment, hit a button at the bench to summon security officers, Gurowitz said. It was unclear how soon other marshals or security guards arrived, but Retchin went to a neighboring courtroom to ask for help.
McMahon "shouldn't have been alone," said one deputy marshal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Typically, at least two marshals are in courtrooms during criminal proceedings. It was not clear why McMahon was alone.
Todd Dillard, the U.S. marshal overseeing security at D.C. Superior Court, said he knew few details about the episode, but he said that McMahon's wound was "very minor." He declined to permit McMahon to speak about what took place.
Authorities said they did not yet know what sparked the ruckus. Joe will likely appear in D.C. Superior Court today on charges of assault on a federal officer, prosecutors said.
Joe, of Falls Church, was charged with felony possession of marijuana last year in the District, but prosecutors dropped the charge, according to court records. She also was charged with simple assault last year, but that case was also dropped.
Brown, 39, was to be sentenced for the July 2001 slaying of Perry Thompson, 29. Brown was convicted of killing Thompson outside Foxy Playground, a Northwest Washington nightclub, after Joe got into a car with Thompson for a ride home. Brown worked at the nightclub as head disc jockey. He is the father of Joe's child, prosecutors said. Retchin rescheduled Brown's sentencing for Jan. 17.
Dillard said marshals and security guards were investigating how Joe may have slipped past a seemingly tight security screening. On most weekday mornings, the line of people waiting to get into the courthouse can stretch dozens deep out the front door. Most security officers, who use metal-detecting wands to scan each visitor, are very thorough.
Dillard said it was possible that Joe took the scissors from someone's office after she was inside the courthouse.
"Let's face it, you walk through the halls of this building and people have their office doors open all the time," Dillard said.
Gurowitz said that theory seems unlikely, given the security of the courtroom corridors.
She said the courthouse is immediately changing its security procedures. All officers who screen visitors will get additional training on how to better monitor entrances, and they'll now search all handbags by hand, even after they pass through X-ray machines, she said.
Also, the U.S. Marshals Service, which conducts monthly assessments of security at the courthouse, will now do so weekly, Gurowitz said.
But Dillard said he had not heard about that policy.
"I'm not sure if there's anything specific that needs to be done about it," Dillard said. "If anyone at the court is making any changes, that's news to me."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.