Roger writing the LAWmag

To Kill A Judge: The Worst of Crimes

Judges, at least in most modern democracies, are almost always safe from retribution from disappointed litigants. This, in spite of the extremely personal words necessarily used by judges to render judgment in the multitude of cases before them, from criminal to family law. For those who are sentenced to jail time, the personal consequences are more than just emotional or financial.

Most, if not all litigants who lose will instantly blame the judge; a judge who failed to see the righteous solution. But none seek to retaliate by an assault against the judge.

Judging can be a tough job. They are never thanked. Nor can they be listed in the phonebook or play defence in the local ice hockey beer-league.

Upon appointment, judges take precautions and remove themselves from many streams of society primarily to protect their independence and their persons. But still, they live among us and on that basis alone, they can rank among the victims of society’s hazards, such as John Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona who was killed in the crossfire on January 8, 2011 when the American senator Gabrielle Giffords was fired at by a disgruntled voter.

It is a happy state of affairs that citizens, while not accepting a judge’s decisions, do not even think of harming the judge. United Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter was fond of saying that "law is all we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling." Innately, every citizen seems to know this. To harm a judge is to compromise one’s own community.

So deferential to judges, for those in the legal community, the mere thought of murder of a judge gives them a creepy feeling.

It ranks as one of the worst crimes.


And yet, albeit rarely, the legal history books are stained with judicial blood.

Justice Gibson's car after bombingIn 1616, Sir John Tyndal presided over a Chancery case (Bartram v Symeon) which went against the plaintiff. Bartam tracked Tyndal back to the local law society club (Lincoln’s Inn) and shot him dead. He was promptly arrested and in spite of speedy justice in England circa 1616, Bartram managed to hang himself in prison before he could be convicted and given the death penalty.

On July 27, 1888, ex-patriate Montrealer and Chief Justice of the Bahamas, Henry William Austin, sentenced Thomas Taylor who promptly jumped at him and attacked the judge with a wooden ruler. He hit the judge on the head and body repeatedly drawing blood. Thomas was pulled off Austin by Court officers as Austin cried “murder!”.  Four days later, Thomas was chained and brought before a bandaged Austin. Austin ordered that Taylor be whipped 30 times and that he thereafter remain in prison for life.

The case of Justice Stephen Johnson Field of the United States Supreme Court involved no less than three judicial homicidal events. First, in 1859, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, David Smith Terry dared Senator David C. Broderick to a duel. Terry shot Broderick dead, lost his judgeship and left the state.

Justice Field was no stranger to duels as in 1858, he was challenged to a duel by fellow Judge William T. Barbour but when the two were given the signal at the duelling grounds, neither man dared to fire.

Thirty years later, Terry was involved as an attorney in an acrimonious divorce case and it came before Field, then on the Federal Circuit Court, who not only ruled against Terry’s client but at one point, jailed Terry for contempt of court. Terry later came across Field on a train near Stockton, California on September 14, 1889 and punched him in the face.  Field had a bodyguard who drew his pistol and shot Terry dead.1

In 1989, Mr. Justice Robert Smith Vance of the United States Court of Appeals opened a package addressed to him at his home. It was a mail bomb and it detonated killing him instantly.

In 1988, New York Justice Richard Joseph Daronco was shot dead by the father of a litigant he had just ruled against in an employment matter.


But the deadliest time and place for judges in all of legal history seems to have been Northern Ireland, circa 1970-1990.

On October 11, 1972, Magistrate William J. Staunton stopped his car outside St. Dominic's Convent Grammar School, Falls Road, Belfast. As his daughter and some school friends left the vehicle to enter the school, a motorcycle pulled up alongside and the passenger shot Mr. Staunton. He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. He never regained consciousness and died at 9.55 pm on Thursday 25 January 1973. The murder was attributed to the Irish Republican Army.

At 8:30 am on September 16, 1974, a person, posing as a postman, rang the doorbell of Judge Rory Conaghan's home at 17 Beechlands, Malone Road, Belfast. The door was answered by Judge Conaghan. He was shot and fatally wounded. The gunman made off and was seen to get into a car which was driven by another person. The car was later abandoned in Windsor Avenue, Belfast. Witnesses observed that two males and a girl were seen to leave the car. The vehicle had been taken from its owner in the Dermott Hill Road, Belfast earlier that day by a person claiming to be from the Irish Republican Army.

On January 16, 1983, Judge William Doyle was shot in Derryvolgie Avenue, Belfast, having just left Mass at St. Brigid's Church. The murder was claimed by the Irish Republican Army.

Judge William Doyle was leavign mass with an elderly woman January 16, 1983 to whom he had offered a lift. The IRA opened fire, killing him and seriously wounding the 72-year old woman.


In 1974, Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Maurice W. Gibson had presided over the trial of IRA member (Mullan) and had given him a long prison sentence for blowing up a house in Belleek. After that, intelligence sources discovered, he was on the IRA hit-list and Gibson was asked to keep the police aware of his travel. After that, he was often shadowed by law enforcement officers.

In November 1982, the trial of three Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers who had emptied 109 bullets into a car in November of 1982, killing three unarmed IRA men, came before Lord Justice Gibson. The killing was not gratuitous: the car had sped through a police checkpoint without stopping.

Gibson acquitted the RUC members but could not help himself from adding:

“I wish to make it clear that, having heard the entire Crown’s case, I regard each of the accused as absolutely blameless in this matter. That finding should be put on record along with my own commendation as to their courage and determination for bringing the three dead men to justice, in this case, to the final court of justice.”

Gibson had come up through the ranks of the Irish bar, graduating From Queen’s University in 1937. He was a Northern Ireland judge by 1968 and Lord Chief Justice by 1975. Since the three dead IRA members were not on trial, his comments seemed to foolishly step right into a minefield of deadly politics, the terrifying consequences of which were soon to follow. In 1984, his holiday home was burned down by unknown arsonists.

In 1987, Justice Gibson and his wife of 46 years, Cecily, planned a motorcar trip through England, mostly to visit friends. They left Belfast on April 17 and Liverpool on the 25th. But they made most of their reservations using their real names, hotel and ferry.

They were met by special forces officers at their disembarkation of the Liverpool to Dublin ferry at 7:30 am, April 27, and they then tailed the Gibsons to the border.

At Dromad, the Gibsons stopped their car to thank the officers and then proceeded Northbound on the main Dublin to Belfast road, Cecily driving. They went unaccompanied to the next checkpoint where they would be joined by a RUC escort.

Immediately after crossing the border, they came across what may have been the last thing they ever saw; a parked Ford Cortina (which was later discovered to have been stolen a month earlier). The Ford carried 400-pounds of explosives rigged with a remote control, and had been abandoned on the side of the road fifteen minutes earlier by persons unknown.

Someone with a trigger switch was watching as the bomb went off just as the Gibsons drove by, killing both of them instantly. In fact, the bodies could only be identified by dental records. The crater caused by the explosion was 10 x 20 feet and 6 feet deep. What was left of the judge’s car was a burning heap of metal (image above).

The South Armagh brigade of PIRA claimed responsibility for the murders. Their message:

“The IRA claimed responsibility for the murder in a brief statement issued from Dublin. They described the attack as the execution of show trial judge Lord Justice Gibson. They added he acted as a judge and jury and supported the RUC executioners but there are other judges in Ireland besides those imposed by Britain. He has now been brought to the “final court of justice”.

On 27 April 1987, the IRA issued their own statement, also seeking responsibility for the cold-blooded murder. The reason given chills. According to the IRA, the Gibsons represented “the evil and corrupt paid perjurer judicial system in the North”.


In 1993, the government decided to investigate the assassination. One does not have to be Irish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Englishman or even Martian to appreciate the conclusions:

“The killing of Lord Justice Gibson was not simply the murder of an individual; it was a blow against the preservation of justice in the community. It was a blow against much that decent people cherish: the rule of law, and a forum for the resolution of disputes which operates on the basis of law, fairness and impartiality. It was a murder that encouraged chaos and a complete breakdown of society. This murder demonstrates yet again the importance that democratic States must attach to the protection of … judges. Without it disorder and chaos will quickly follow.”


  • 13 Legal News 201 (1890)
  • Contempt of Court – An Extraordinary Case, 13 Journal of Jurisprudence 572 (1888)
  • Cory Collusion Inquiry Report - Lord Justice Gibson and Lady Gibson, October 7, 2003
  • Items of General Interest, 12 Crim. L. Mag. & Rep. 515 (1890)
  •  NOTE 1: Even from the grave, Terry returned to the Supreme Court when the conduct of the bodyguard was the subject In re Neagle, 135 US 1 (1890)

Posted in Crime and Criminal Law, Legal History, Legal Profession and Lawyers

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