Last March, a federal prosecutor in Utah overseeing a racketeering case against a dozen members of the Soldiers of Aryan Culture received a chilling threat.
“You stupid bitch!” the letter to the assistant United States attorney, who is an African-American woman, began. “It is because of you that my brothers are in jail.” The letter went on to mention the prosecutor’s home address, concluding, “We will get you.” It was signed, “Till the casket drops.”
After a second threat, a federal magistrate summoned the 12 defendants to a courtroom in Salt Lake City late last year and informed them that their family visits and telephone privileges would be suspended.
The men, who are accused of operating a violent criminal enterprise that peddles white supremacist ideology and methamphetamine inside and outside Utah’s prisons, did not take the news well.
Seated in the jury box because they were too numerous to sit together at the defense table, the defendants were handcuffed and shackled. But this did not stop them from leaping to their feet, spewing profanity-laden protests, spitting, kicking and scuffling with more than a dozen United States marshals and court security officers.
It was not just another day in an American courtroom, but it was not an aberration either. Defendants act out. And threats against judges and prosecutors appear to be a regular, almost routine, part of courthouse life, not only in highly public, emotional cases like that of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman in Florida whose feeding tube was removed by court order on Friday, but in garden-variety disputes, too.
Only federal authorities keep a count of annual threats, but the 700 reported against federal judicial officials alone suggest that the actual quantity of total threats against federal, state and local court officials is quite large.
In the last decade, too, threats have escalated, especially on the federal level, where there is a new age of dangerous cases involving terrorism, international drug trafficking, international organized crime and gangs. Violent incidents themselves, inside and outside the courtroom, are not tallied but they are known to involve an unpredictable range of defendants, from white supremacists and gang members to white-collar frauds, batterers and civil litigants.
Court-related violence is a chronic, costly preoccupation for those inside the system, but it is not one that usually gets much attention. That concern clearly ratcheted up considerably and went public after the back-to-back killings of a federal judge’s relatives in Chicago and of a county judge, court reporter, sheriff’s deputy and federal customs agent in Atlanta.
The killings, which the authorities say were committed by a disgruntled plaintiff in Chicago on Feb. 28 and a rape defendant on March 11 in Atlanta, prompted security reviews at courthouses around the country, an appeal by federal judges for bolstered security and a nationwide, soul-searching conversation among judges, prosecutors and other court officials shaken by the events.