Roger writing the LAWmag

Judges Down In the Line of Duty

For all the money they make, the influence they wield, there are some aspects of the judge's life which are not enviable.

Few litigants really appreciate the role of the judge. Almost daily, judges render very difficult decisions. There is an old, venerable Latin maxim which summarizes the tremendous obligation of judges and that is fiat justitia, ruat caelum, that they will render justice though the heavens fall.

Many of the litigants before the courts disagree with the decision or see in the decision some kind of conspiracy of injustice. It has actually been suggested to me on more than one occasion by a client that the other lawyer has spoken privately with the judge before our hearing!

In spite of legal education, the perspective of a litigant - especially one that has lost a case - is not always rational.

To the credit of most free and democratic societies, in spite of the difficult decisions they make in very hostile cases, very few judges have ever had their personal safety put at risk.

Charles HarrelsonLawyers, though also officers of the court, have been shot and killed in the line of duty in the United States far more often than judges. Judges have their own private offices and private entrance to the Court room. When they appear in court, are protected by armed sheriffs and are almost always placed in an elevated, gated area of the court where they can see everyone. That, of course, may explain their safety in the courthouse but as history has shown, leaves them vulnerable at home.

Few judges publish their residential address or phone number and for good cause. They have to close their Facebook account and many of them simply abandon the majority of their acquaintances, noblesse oblige.

Still, some of pay the ultimate price for holding before all the scales of justice and making the right decision though the skies may shake.

In the United States, with gun ownership rampant, the personal safety risk is exponentially higher for judges than, say, in Canada. January 8, 2013 will mark the second anniversary of the death of chief justice John McCarthy Roll of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. Justice Roll was amongst the 18 persons shot while attending a political event near Tucson, Arizona. Also shot and seriously injured was US House of Representatives member Gabrielle Giffords, wife of space shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly.

Judge Roll had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time and was not killed as a result of his judicial service. But his death still brings to five the number of murdered judges in the United States in the last thirty years - with none in the preceding eighty.

In 1979, Judge John Howland Wood was shot to death outside his home in San Antonia by a hit man hired by a local dealer on the cusp of sentencing by Judge Wood, a certain Jamiel Chagra.

The hit man, Charles Harrelson, was the estranged father of well-known Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, who later tried unsuccessfully to have his father's conviction overturned in order to secure a new trial.

Judge Wood was well-known for his tough-on-drugs sentences - even given the nickname Maximum John.

In 2007, Charles Harrelson died of a heart attack at ADX Florence prison in Florence, Colorado, at the age of 69.Walter Moody

Judge Richard Daronco was shot in 1988 while doing yard work at his Pelham, New York. He was shot dead by the father of a woman who had just lost a sexual harassment case in Daronco's courtroom. After the father shot the judge, he killed himself.

The killer? Charles Koster, a retired New York City police officer.

On December 16, 1989, United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit judge Robert Smith Vance opened a packaged that had arrived at his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama just a few days before Christmas. It was a mail bomb. The bomb killed him instantly and seriously injured his wife. The authorities tracked down the killer, Walter Leroy Moody, Jr.

Vance was a member of the court of appeals that confirmed Moody's conviction for possession of a bomb but had not sat on Moody's appeal. Moody was convicted and sentenced to death and is still on death row in Alabama at Holman Death Row Prison near Atmore, Alabama. But still, strange fact: no one has ever been given the death penalty for the murder of an American judge. The Alabama death row stacks them up: there are 205 inmates on it. Six were give lethal injections in 2011 but none in 2012.

In 2005, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes was shot and killed in his courtroom after convicting Brian Nichols for rape. Nichols suddenly attacked the sheriff and was able to get her gun. He used the gun to get specific directions to judge Barnes's courtroom which he entered and shot both Barnes and a court reporter. He then used the gun to make his escape from the courthouse. He was apprehended the next day and, in 2008, sentenced to life in jail with no parole just barely avoiding the death penalty when the jury could not return a unanimous verdict on it.

It is disconcerting that in the last 110 years, all five murders of judges in the United States has occurred in the last quarter. To some observers, this may be a sign of a growing disrespect of the populace toward the essential role the judges play in our society. To others, this may simply be a random statistic - that judges are no more at risk today than they were in 1925, for example.

And as for fatality rate at-large? A pittance compared to fishermen, loggers, roofers, steel workers and taxi drivers.

Throw in the pay ($300,000 a year) and there's no end to lawyers seeking appointments.


Posted in Crime and Criminal Law, Legal History

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