U S. judiciary facing rise in death threats
by Robert Anglen - Jul. 9, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
A prison informer gave up details of a planned hit in April: A drug dealer wanted a federal prosecutor dead. The prosecutor had put him away; now he was willing to pay someone to kill her.
The informer came forward on a Monday afternoon.
On Tuesday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Mosher in Tucson was alerted to the threat on her life. The next day, Mosher was under the protective guard of a team of deputy U.S. marshals who would cover her every move for the next 10 days while another team investigated the threat.
Federal judges and prosecutors across the country, including in Arizona, are confronting a growing number of threats against their lives. The U.S. Marshals Service, which provides security for federal court personnel, reports that the number of threats nationwide against such officials, jurors and witnesses has more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 to nearly 1,300.
In Arizona, U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said deputies who once investigated a handful of threats, typically hurled by defendants at a judge during sentencing, are now fielding three to four threats a week.
The threats come via e-mail, text message and telephone. They are posted in the blogosphere and sometimes fed by polemic radio talk-show hosts. In response, some federal judges have taken to arming themselves with handguns. Others are tapping into federal funds to install or upgrade home-security systems.
The need to investigate and assess the threats led to the creation this year of a special unit of four full-time deputy marshals in Arizona who monitor "inappropriate communications."
Marshals also have stepped up preventive measures, giving personal-security lessons to federal court staffers and their families, training them in evasive maneuvers and evaluating home-alarm systems.
The increase in threats is being fueled partly by the Internet. A person who would never write a threatening letter to a judge does not have qualms about posting the same anonymous message online, Gonzales said.
Other factors are the country's worsening economic condition, reflected in bankruptcy cases, where desperate people lash out in frustration at judges who adjudicate their financial losses.
Gonzales also said the court system is seeing increasingly violent defendants in cases related to immigration, terrorism, drugs and hate crimes.
"A lot of times, you find threats are made by guys covered with Cheeto dust and still living in their mother's basement," he said. "We still have to neutralize all of those threats."
Threats change lives
Mosher said the threat on her life hit her like a brick. She spent the next 10 days learning to live a completely different lifestyle.
"I've been doing this for this office for 20 years, and I have never had a death threat," the 50-year-old prosecutor said. "It is very disturbing. . . . You realize you are a victim. I do feel vulnerable."
Deputy marshals accompanied her when she went to work, the grocery store, and to lunch and dinner appointments. They drove her car, prepared to use defensive-driving techniques if attacked.
Deputy marshals went with her on hospital visits to her ailing mother. Upon arriving at her home each night, they would go through every room of her house, looking under beds and in closets, before she was allowed to be alone.
Outside her house, Pima County sheriff's deputies, working with the marshals, ran extra patrols. They were intentionally visible, sending a signal.
"Basically, I had two people with me 24 hours a day," she said. "They really impressed me with the training they had."
Mosher said marshals upgraded her home-security system. They taught her to be aware of her surroundings. Every day, they would brief her about their investigation.
Ultimately, they learned the informer was trying to use jailhouse chatter to cut his own deal on a sentence. The drug dealer was a big talker but had no intention of carrying out the threat.
Gonzales said that most threats fizzle into nothing and that almost none leads to prosecutions.
"The vast majority of these things are just individuals expressing their opinions," he said. "It's one thing to (make a threat). You also have to have the means to do it."
Security for court staff
Security concerns intensified in 2005 after a man who was angry over the dismissal of his civil-malpractice case murdered the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow of Chicago.
On any given day now, the U.S. Marshals Service is running 20 protective details of judges and court staff across the country. Deputies are shared with other jurisdictions to ease the manpower burden.
The Marshals Service this year opened a national threat-assessment center at its headquarters in Arlington, Va., with links to FBI, CIA and other law-enforcement databases. The center fields hotline calls from court personnel, assesses the threat and can gather intelligence about the person who made the threat.
Some federal court employees are linked to the system via a panic button that alerts marshals at the center to their location and links them to local emergency dispatchers.
Besides working details, marshals also evaluate the personal security of judges, court staff and their families and coach them on safety techniques. That could include observation training, advice on proper landscaping around a house and how to react to a potential threat.
Gonzales said marshals also evaluate security at federal courthouses across the country. Specific security measures are different in each jurisdiction. Gonzales said the reason cameras and audio recorders aren't allowed in Arizona's federal courts is to prevent potential bad guys from identifying court staff, witnesses and jurors.
Gonzales said deputies work on identifying high-profile cases that will generate controversy and outrage before they begin.
In February, when U.S. District Judge John Roll presided over a $32 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher, the Marshals Service was anticipating the fallout.
When Roll ruled the case could go forward, Gonzales said talk-radio shows cranked up the controversy and spurred audiences into making threats.
In one afternoon, Roll logged more than 200 phone calls. Callers threatened the judge and his family. They posted personal information about Roll online.
"They said, 'We should kill him. He should be dead,' " Gonzales said.
Roll, who is the chief federal judge in Arizona, said both he and his wife were given a protection detail for about a month.
"It was unnerving and invasive. . . . By its nature it has to be," Roll said, adding that they were encouraged to live their lives as normally as possible. "It was handled very professionally by the Marshals Service."
At the end of the month, Roll said four key men had been identified as threat makers.
The Marshals Service left to him the decision to press charges but recommended against it. Roll said he had no qualms about following their advice.
The recommendation was based on the intent of those making the threats.
"I have a very strong belief that there is nothing wrong with criticizing a judicial decision," he said. "But when it comes to threats, that is an entirely different matter."
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2009/07/09/20090709threats0709.html#ixzz1AU5kstU6