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Courthouse Shooting Raises New Concerns About Safety of Judges

July 4, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The shooting of two judges in a Fort Worth, Texas, courthouse is raising new concerns about the safety of judges.

The U.S. Marshals Service said it has provided round-the-clock protection in recent years for scores of federal judges who have been threatened. On occasion, marshals have tagged along to football games, weddings and fishing trips.

″When there’s a serious threat, we’re like a member of the judge’s family. We’re with him 24 hours a day,″ said William Dempsey, a spokesman for the service.

The Marshals Service supervises security for some 1,800 federal judges, magistrates and other judicial officers.

There was renewed concern for the safety of judges this week after an attack at the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas, that claimed two lives. A prosecutor and an attorney were shot to death, and two judges and a prosecutor were wounded in Wednesday’s rampage.

A 45-year-old lawyer turned himself in, saying he was angry over his divorce case and his ex-wife’s child-molesting charge against him.

The Texas attack, involving a county courthouse, may have lessons for federal court security also.

But David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said federal courthouses seem to be safer places.

″There’s never been a situation where a federal judge has been killed at a courthouse,″ he said.

Also, he said, there appear to be fewer threats against federal judges, probably because they do not preside over family disputes that often ″produce the strongest feelings.″

But since 1979 three federal judges have been killed - all in attacks at their homes.

Robert Vance, an appeals court judge, was killed in 1989 by a mail bomb he received at his home in Birmingham, Ala.

A retired police officer fatally shot U.S. District Judge Robert Daronco while the judge was gardening in his backyard in Pelham, N.Y., in 1987.

Eight years earlier U.S. District Judge John Wood was gunned down by a hired killer at the judge’s home in San Antonio, Texas. the judge has been assigned to preside over an important drug trial.

Concern for the safety of judges, particularly when they are away from court buildings equipped with the latest in metal detectors, is mounting. The U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm for the federal court system, recommended legislation to let judges carry guns.

The plan would exempt federal judges from local firearms laws and let them carry guns across state lines. But it has yet to be introduced as a bill in Congress.

Safety concerns prompted Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to order a study by the General Accounting Office into what can be done to protect federal judges. The GAO report is expected by the end of the year.

Statistics provided by the Marshals Service suggest the problem is serious, but the trend is not clear.

The number of threats against federal judges is averaging over 300 in recent years. The total jumped to nearly 500 in 1990, but is down this year. Since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, there have been 161 threats, the Marshals Service said.

After the service determines that a threat is very serious, it assigns round-the-clock protection for the judges. Such cases number about 100 a year.

By contrast, Judge Wood turned down a security detail before he was fatally shot in his driveway in 1979.

The service is reluctant to discuss specific cases or tip its hand on what security measures it takes to cope with the threats.

But the judges now are trained in what to look for and how to react to threats.

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