Court Security

Decades after ex-attorney killed 2 lawyers, shot judges in Texas courtroom, fatal conflicts continue

A fatal attack in a Texas appellate courtroom almost exactly 21 years ago is remembered as a milestone in Tarrant County history that led to a new focus on keeping lawyers, judges and litigants safe.

Yet such conflicts continue today, there and elsewhere, despite the increased awareness and new security measures instituted after a former lawyer shot two prosecutors to death and injured two judges and an attorney, reported WFAA earlier this year. The gunman, George Lott, voluntarily surrendered at the station, saying that he’d been upset about losing a child custody case.

Lott had been awaiting trial in Peoria, Ill., where the alleged victim lived, in an aggravated sexual assault case, at the time of the Texas courtroom shootings. He had sent a threatening letter to a prosecutor there and called the court clerk in Peoria, seeking hearings on his complaints that prosecutors were withholding evidence, prosecutors in Peoria told the Dallas Morning News shortly after the July 1, 1992 courtroom attack in Texas.

“He feels terribly wronged by the justice system,” prosecutor Jim Owens told the newspaper hours after the Texas shootings. ”What happened today didn’t surprise any of us. In fact, I think it could have just as easily happened here.”

Lott was executed in 1994, after opting to represent himself and choosing not to pursue appellate options, the New York Times (reg. req.) reported at the time.

But his case has continued to reverberate, throughout the intervening years, with those responsible for court security. Nearby Wichita County instituted new courthouse security measures after Lott opened fire, the Examiner reported in 2010. And reporters called in 2012 to speak to the lawyer who survived the Texas courtroom attack when a criminal defendant killed a bystander and injured others, including his own daughter, at a courthouse in Beaumont, Texas, a Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office blog post noted.

Multiple news reports this year brought up the Tarrant County courtroom attack after prosecutors were slain in Kaufman County, Texas. A total of 14 prosecutors have been slain throughout the country during the last century, the Associated Press reported in April. At least eight of those slayings were job-related.

Meanwhile, a number of lawyers have been involved in fatal litigation-related incidents outside the courtroom. They include Xia Zhao, a young mother who foresaw her own death, according to witnesses in her attacker’s murder trial, yet didn’t back down from representing a client in a civil wrongful death case (software engineer Jason Cai was convicted and sentenced to life in 2012) and Mark Hummels, who was shot to death, along with his client earlier this year by an opposing party after a business mediation hearing. The suspect subsequently was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sadly, there have also been incidents in which lawyers were accused of violent attacks on others. Earlier this week, authorities say, a Tarrant County, Texas, matrimonial lawyer who specialized in “collaborative divorce” shot her estranged husband, less than a month after she filed for divorce, and committed suicide.

While such incidents can’t always be prevented, simple security measures can provide significant protection, an expert told earlier this year, after a litigant and a friend were reportedly shot to death by the father of her former husband at a courthouse in Wilmington, Del.

Locking doors, installing and using remote starters in personal vehicles and getting safety training for all family members were among the recommendations made by Anthony Roman. He also said being aware of one’s surroundings and knowing how to defuse a tense situation–perhaps just by taking a break when tempers rise–can prevent violence.

Law firms should be locked, visitors should wear color-coded badges and be escorted at all times and, optimally, offices would have perimeter cameras with smart technology to recognize license plates and faces, according to Roman. (For more recommendations, read the full article.)

“Those very simple things can go a very long way in avoiding many of the casualties and injuries we see against attorneys,” he said.

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