Published January 13, 2015
In Atlanta, someone grabs a gun from a deputy and kills not only a judge presiding over his case but the deputy and a court stenographer. In Chicago, someone else gets into a judge’s home and kills her husband and mother.
These murders – Friday’s violence in Atlanta in Judge Rowland Barnes (search) courtroom and the Feb. 28 killings of Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow's (search) family members — are rare, but the threats are not.
“We have to worry about the safety of the judge, the court reporter, the defense lawyer, the prosecutor,” said FOX News’ Greta Van Susteren. “Courthouses are magnets for problems. That’s why you go to court – because you have a problem.”
The U.S. Marshals Service, which tackles security for federal judges and officers of the court, says the potential danger for judges and other court personnel is a very real problem.
The service keeps statistics on more than 2000 judges, prosecutors and federal defenders. Every year, it receives more than 700 threats against federal judges. A small number — about 20 judges and prosecutors — have a protection detail and, of those, a dozen require around-the-clock security.
According to the Marshals Service, more than 277,000 banned items were confiscated at courts last year. These items included guns and knives.
The suspect in the Atlanta case, Brian Nichols (search), was found to have had a hand-made knife hidden his shoe after a court appearance on Wednesday. Authorities are not sure how he got it or what he intended to do with it.
But he was allowed to return to court on Friday and was being escorted to a court room by a lone female deputy when he managed to take her gun. Armed with the deputy's gun, authorities believe Nichols entered Judge Barnes' courtroom and held law enforcement officers there at bay. He then shot Barnes and the clerk, both of whom died in the courtroom. The other deputy who died was shot as Nichols was fleeing the courthouse, officials said.
The chain of events led a number of legal analysts and former judges or court officials to question how efficient the security was at the Fulton County Courthouse (search). Why was it that an accused violent rapist was being escorted by only one deputy? How could the suspect get the gun away from the deputy?
"Clearly something broke down in the system," said Howard Safir, a former New York City police commissioner. "One thing you never see in a federal courthouse is an exposed weapon."
Safir said state courts should consider keeping bailiffs and other armed court personnel in plain clothes. That prevents suspects from knowing exactly where their weapons are concealed or from knowing who the officers are.
“Well-trained procedures that are in palce are what prevents this kind of a tragedy," Safir said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, security in courthouses around the nation has been strengthened. Courts have more perimeter security and more machines to screen courthouse visitors for guns. But the National Center for State Courts reports the degree to which these security procedures are followed can vary from court to court.
The last time a federal judge was killed was in 1989. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert Vance died after opening a mail bomb sent by a man who was angry that his conviction for possessing a pipe bomb had not been overturned.
Security officials say the case that first changed attitudes about security involved the father of actor Woody Harrelson (search). In 1979, Judge John Wood was shot by a sniper outside his home in San Antonio, Texas. Harrelson’s father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, was later convicted for the crime.
Retired Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, FOX News’ senior judicial analyst, said that judges need to be prepared for the worst. Judges can carry sidearms if they feel the need and can also request 24-hour security if they feel threatened. Plus, courts already have significant security procedures.
“But there is a belief [among judges] that ‘they’re not going to come after me. I’m just doing my job.’ … I myself fell susceptible to that and became oblivious to security problems. It’s easy to fall into that trap. … What happened today will change security across the country.”
Retired Judge John M. Boyle, who presided over a courtroom in Union County, N.J., said he had been faced with threats during his time on the bench. “You’re not sure whether to take these people seriously or not. That’s part of the problem. A lot of these people are cracks,” he said.
“I think I became a little tougher,” Boyle told FOX News. “You take this with the job, it’s part of the territory.”
FOX News' Catherine Herridge and J. Jennings Moss contributed to this report.