Life Under Death Threats: Dangers Faced By Judges, Prosecutors

Guests

Mike Cicconetti, municipal judge, Painesville, Oh.
Carl Caulk, assistant director of judicial security, U.S. Marshals
Sid Harle, district court judge, San Antonio, Tx.

The recent shooting and killing of a Texas District Attorney has local law enforcement and prosecutors on high alert for other threats. Threats against prosecutors, judges and DA's have been on the upswing in the U.S. in recent years. In 2012, 1,370 threats were made against federal judges.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We've received many kind messages since last Friday, when NPR announced that this program will cease production at the end of June. Our heartfelt thanks to everybody who took the time to write. We have a lot of programs before we sign off and a lot of stories to share.

We begin today with the threats faced by law enforcement officials and their families. Some officials in Texas say the murder of Kaufman County district attorney and his wife Saturday may be linked to the shooting death of an assistant DA on the county courthouse steps in January and maybe to the killing of Colorado's prisons chief last night. Their names: Mike McLelland, Cynthia McLelland, Mark Hasse and Tom Clements.

Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood told ABC News this is not just an attack on two very fine people but an attack on the justice system. Too often cops, DAs, prison officials and judges live under threat, and as we saw in Texas, that can include their families. If that's your story, call and tell us how you deal with those threats. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program on The Opinion Page, an argument that U.S. intervention could contain violence in Syria just as, Jackson Diehl argues, it did in Iraq. But first life under threat of death. Judge Mike Cicconetti is a municipal judge in Painesville, Ohio, and he joins us on the phone. Thanks very much for being with us today.

MIKE CICCONETTI: I'm happy to be here; hello, Neal.

CONAN: And your story is, well, sobering, isn't it?

CICCONETTI: It was very sobering. We were coming up on an anniversary here in April. We're coming up on seven years here, seven years ago that this happened. And, you know, you still think about it every day when you had a threat of death over you and your family. And it's, as you say, very sobering.

CONAN: What happened?

CICCONETTI: Well, I had a couple in court here, and I have a misdemeanor court, and these people came in here on just a minor charge. It was a tax evasion of their village income tax. And, you know, the possible penalty, I don't even know if it was more than 30 days in jail. And they were set for a trial, which would have been on April 20th of that month.

And they felt like everybody was out to get them. And I think you find that this rings true with so many of these people who are seeking vengeance on public officials that, you know, it's everybody's out to get them syndrome that they have.

So they were plotting against the mayor of the village, the police chief of the village, the prosecutor of the village and myself, the judge who would have heard the case. And it was a death threat where they had - as a matter of fact, not planned - they were constructing and in the final phase of constructing an IED, a pipe bomb, that would explode in my house.

CONAN: And did you know you were under threat?

CICCONETTI: Well, on April 4th, the - I was called by one of the local police departments. I was at my doctor's office, and they said come meet us. So I went and I met them, sat in their patrol car, and they pulled out a CD, put it on the computer and played it. And I heard the voice of the defendant. They had - there was an informant that went to the police and told them hey this - you know, I'm not a good guy - the informant, matter of fact he had a felony charge pending - but this is way out of my league here. This is wrong, this is sick.

So he went to the police, told them. They put a wire on him, and he went and recorded it, and that's what I heard. And I heard the death threat being made and the plans as to how it was to be carried out on this CD. And then it was six days of actual living hell, of living like a nomad and hiding and having the FBI, ATF, local police departments all involved in this.

CONAN: And your family?

CICCONETTI: Well, you know, I had - I have two sons, and at the time they were eight and 10 years old. And we had told them that we had to move out of the house, that there was a gas leak. Well, kids are pretty smart and intuitive, and they, you know, they said to us, well, mom and dad, if there's a gas leak, why aren't we taking the guinea pigs out of the house.

So I said OK, got me. So then we had to really - we had to sit down and explain to them what was going on, and it had an adverse effect on them psychologically. I mean, they're kids, they're little kids. They were scared. You know, grades, you could see the grades were dropping just in a period of a week. And we had to live in secret places in other houses for that period of time, until they were apprehended, which was about a week later.

CONAN: And thank heavens it was only a week, but then something like this incident happens in Texas, I'm sure you get flashbacks.

CICCONETTI: I mean every time it happens, it sure does, Neal. And you look at that, and you go just how, you know, how many sick people are there out there in this world. And, you know, you talk about gun control bills, and all this is up in the air. And, you know, it's - I don't care what you do in this country, it's not going to stop somebody from building a pipe bomb.

It's easier to go on the Internet. It's easier than making a batch of cupcakes to put together a pipe bomb. So, you know, it's a society that - our thinking in this society that needs to change. You know, rules, laws, you know, that's not going to change anything. We have the laws. There's a law against murder. Well, does that stop people? No. There's a law against tax evasion here. Does that stop people? No.

It's, you know, the entire society has to change, our mode of thinking.

CONAN: And did it change the way you did your job?

CICCONETTI: You know, I want to say no, but honestly I'd have to say yes - that I hope that it doesn't, but I know that it probably does, when I get someone in court that looks a little off-balance or a little eerie, or, you know, or perhaps threatening. You know, when you sit on the bench for 20 years like I have, you pretty much get a feel of how this is going before they even get up to the bench.

On their walk, you know, the 10, 15 paces that they make up to the bench, I pretty much tell - I can know where this is going just by body language. And it's - you know, it's - you don't even think about it. And do I become a little apprehensive, at times, with certain defendants? Yeah, I probably do, that I didn't do seven years ago. Yes, you know, I'd be lying if I said I didn't.

You know, I carry stun guns on my bench now, and I never even thought about that before. When I leave the court in the afternoon, you know, I look around the parking lot before I go down the stairs to my car. Sure, yeah, I do things that I didn't even think about doing before.

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry you had to go through it, judge, and...

CICCONETTI: Well, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And we'll let you get back to work. But thank you very much for sharing your story.

CICCONETTI: OK, you're welcome. Good luck with your show.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

CICCONETTI: All right, take care.

CONAN: Mike Cicconetti is a municipal judge in Painesville, Ohio, currently in his third six-year term in office. Joining us here in Studio 3A is Carl Caulk, assistant director of judicial security for the U.S. Marshals. Thanks very much for coming in today.

CARL CAULK: Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: And U.S. Marshals, obviously a municipal court judge outside of your jurisdiction, but these kinds of things happen to federal officials, too.

CAULK: Absolutely, and we literally have hundreds of threats and inappropriate communications that are made against judicial and prosecutorial officials at a federal level every year.

CONAN: And how do you decide which to take seriously?

CAULK: Well, to be frank, we take all of them seriously. We have a cadre of threat investigators around the United States, and those individuals investigate each and every one of those threats and inappropriate communications that are received by our protectees.

CONAN: And when do you decide to disrupt the lives of someone who's been threatened?

CAULK: Well, after an initial assessment is made of a threat, then we generally put in a set of protective measures that can run the full gamut all the way up to a 24/7 protection detail with any number of people around a protectee's home and their travel, et cetera.

CONAN: Now the FBI is involved in this case in Texas. I - again not your bailiwick, but I wonder, when you hear something like that, what's your reaction?

CAULK: Well, you know, our reaction quite frankly is - I mean, we share reaction that is, you know, any time we see an attack on a prosecutor or a judge at any level, it shows a general disregard for the rule of law. And anytime we see that, obviously it's concerning to us because from where we sit it does not matter whether it's a state or a local judge or a prosecutor. You know, an attack on the law is an attack on the law.

And so it does give us pause, and obviously, you know, we try to work as closely with our law enforcement partners to not only track what's going on in this case but in all types of threat cases, even if they involve state and local officials.

CONAN: And is your job strictly reactive, you wait until there's a threat, or is there a proactive element, as well?

CAULK: Well, I think there's several proactive things that we like to do. One, I mean, we're charge with a physical security of court facilities around the United States, and so obviously there's some proactive steps that we put in place. There's an education part of this for our protectees. As the judge just mentioned, being aware of your surroundings, being aware when you commute to and from work.

And so there's a whole education piece about personal security awareness when you're not in those secure facilities, when you're at home, when you're commuting. And then of course there's the work that we do to share our knowledge and work closely with state and local law enforcement so they have benefit of our experience and vice versa whenever they're providing protection for state and local officials.

And so that relationship building is very important to us, and then that whole education piece for our protectees is very important from a proactive standpoint.

CONAN: And it was interesting, when Judge Cicconetti was talking about, you know, the feeling that even in a municipal court case like his where at worse somebody might get 30 days in jail, everybody's against him, the feeling that some people have that this is, you know, a terrible wrong that needs to be righted.

CAULK: It is. It's a common - as he pointed out, it's a common feeling that a lot of individuals who threaten, they have that feeling. They have a paranoid feeling that the system is stacked against them. And at the end of the day, judges and prosecutors make decisions that change people's lives. So whether it's a murder case or whether it's as simple as a bankruptcy case, at the end of the day people's lives are being changed, and people react to those decisions that are made by prosecutors and judges.

CONAN: And do these snowball? If one case happens, Atlanta courthouse a few years ago, do you worry that other people may get the same idea?

CAULK: I think, you know, anytime you see a crime perpetrated in a particular way against a judge or a prosecutor, again I go back to it makes us think, it gives us pause because we do worry about individuals taking, you know, like steps to - if they feel that, you know, the system is not giving them a fair shake, so to speak.

CONAN: All right, we want to hear from those of you whose story this is, from judges and prosecutors, from cops, prison officials, as well. Sadly, we are having difficulties with our telephone system. If you're trying to call in, we apologize. We'll try to get it straightened away. We'll give out the phone number again when we do. And please, we want to hear your stories, as well.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. We're talking with Carl Caulk, assistant director of judicial security at the U.S. Marshals Service. If you're in law enforcement, if you have a family member who is, tell us: How do you deal with threats? We'll try to get that phone system sorted out. In the meantime, you can send us email, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. We'll be back in a minute. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This morning, deputies escorted courthouse employees into the building in Kaufman County, Texas, a measure of security just two days after District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia were found shot to death in their home.

Elsewhere in Texas, law enforcement agencies are offering extra protection to their staffs. For example, Mike Anderson and his family accepted the sheriff's offer of 24-hour security. He's district attorney in Harris County, which includes Houston. He told ABC News that district attorneys across Texas are still in a state of shock.

If you're an officer, a DA, a prison official, a judge, if you've lived under threat, call and tell us how you deal with it. Our phone number, well, our regular phone number is still not working, but you can give us a call, 202-513-2531. Again the number, right now, 202-513-2531. You can also reach us by email. That address, that's the usual one. That's talk@npr.org.

Carl Caulk, assistant director of judicial security for the U.S. Marshals Service, is our guest. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Joining us now, Judge Sid Harle, a district court judge in San Antonio, Texas, also a former prosecutor. He's on the line with us from his office there in San Antonio. And Judge Harle, nice to have you with us today.

SID HARLE: Thank you, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I know you used to be a prosecutor, as well. So this must be an alarming situation as you think about what's happening in Kaufman County.

HARLE: Well absolutely, and I'd like to start by offering my deepest condolences and sympathies to the McClelland family, the Hasse family and of course the Clements family. They were dedicated public servants, and it was a great tragedy. But it is concerning and alarming.

CONAN: Mr. Hasse of course the assistant district attorney in Kaufman County who was killed on the courthouse steps in January; Mr. Clements, the heads of prisons in Colorado, who died last month, shot at his home. And, you know, there's a suspicion, and it's just a suspicion now, that these may be connected.

HARLE: That is true. That's what I'm reading and from the briefings we're getting. They're taking that as a very serious possibility.

CONAN: I wonder, Carl Caulk, as you sit here with us in the studio, when you're thinking about one incident, well, one threat bad enough. When it might be an organized group, how does that change your thinking?

CAULK: Well, in terms of the investigation itself, it does not change it significantly in that our entire investigative thrust is to mitigate whatever threat has been made. That's done through a variety of means, be it subject interviews, be it cooperative interviews with family and friends. Certainly if you introduce a group dynamic with group thinking and a group hierarchy, it makes it more difficult in terms of span of control of an investigation.

The investigation certainly becomes exponentially larger, in terms of possible threateners.

CONAN: Judge Harle, did you face threats as a prosecutor? Do you face threats as a judge?

HARLE: Certainly everyone in this line of work at some point in time has threats leveled at them, and it is part of the job, and you can't let it change the way you run your court or the way you prosecute or frankly your quality of life. You worry more about your family than yourself, but you just need to be aware and take precautions and always, you know, just be aware of your surroundings and know what's going on.

But we rely heavily on the law enforcement end to evaluate the credibility and the seriousness of the individual threats. We get briefings from, here locally, in San Antonio, the U.S. Marshalls Office has come over and helped us with our security. And our head of security here, the sheriff of Bexar County, is excellent at keeping us apprised of potential threats.

CONAN: And how do you decide when to notify the authorities that you've received a threat?

HARLE: Oh, we notify them about anything, something that occurs in the courtroom, something that occurs by mail or telephone. We've got some harassing phone calls going on in Bexar County right now that the sheriff is keeping everyone apprised of so everybody knows what's going on. So everyone takes every threat seriously, but the level of preparation and concern kind of changes.

We had one a couple of weeks ago against one of our local judges that was originated by someone that was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, and that's obviously very concerning because they are a well-organized and dangerous group, and you can't prepare enough for something like that.

And as we've discovered, there's no level of preparation that's going to be absolute. You can carry a gun. You can be aware of people coming to your home. You can have absolute security. But if it's someone lying in wait in an ambush situation or a home invasion, there's not much anybody can do in that regard.

CONAN: And we had been told that District Attorney McLelland, particularly after Mr. Hasse's murder, was, well, very aware of the possibility that he might be under threat, too, carried a gun, and that didn't - do you also try to protect yourself like that as well?

HARLE: I have on occasion carried a gun on my person. Typically I do not carry it daily. I have many weapons at my home. I have a concealed weapon handgun license. I'm a magistrate, so I can carry a weapon. I do have them in my vehicles. But unless I'm concerned about an overt threat, I don't carry it on my person generally.

But frankly you don't want to rely too much on weapons. you want to rely on awareness and knowledge of your surroundings and varying your, you know, time you get here and what time you leave and just take general precautions, rely on that over and above weapons, because someone else could certainly be out - you could be outgunned, and someone else could be in a situation where they're going to be lying in wait in an ambush like we saw, and there's really not much you can do in that regard.

CONAN: One place anybody knows you're going to be is at your bench. We heard Judge Cicconetti tell us earlier that he keeps a stun gun at his bench when he hears cases. What about you?

HARLE: Well, I rely on my bailiffs in the court. We have some excellent sheriff's deputies assigned. And, you know, we're talking about criminal cases, but really some of the worst cases that we deal with on a daily basis are family law cases, child custody, divorces, and those individuals are at a high level of emotional state, distraught and concerned. And we've had threats of judges that are hearing those cases here in Bexar County.

And they have one bailiff to my two bailiffs. So everyone has to be prepared and be ready. But mostly the judges rely on their security in the courtroom.

CONAN: Carl Caulk, I guess you have to rely on security in the courtroom, though as we've seen, sometimes that does break down, very rarely. But outside the courtroom, varying your habits, this is not living your life in a normal way.

CAULK: No, you're 100 percent correct. And the judge referenced the education and that personal security awareness when you're outside of the courthouse. Unfortunately that's become the norm for both prosecutors, as well as judges, at all levels. And you're correct that it takes away some of your flexibility, it takes away some of your freedom, if you will, but unfortunately it's become a requirement to vary those commuting habits, to be certainly aware of your surroundings, to look at home security, home alarms, how you can harden your residence, if you will.

And then as the judge said, anything untoward whatsoever, reporting that to law enforcement so that it can be investigated whether it's an overt threat or even if it's what we call an inappropriate communication, which is somewhat more veiled in nature, but anything that's inappropriate or out of the normal course of business.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Again our regular phone line is not working today. We apologize for that. 202-513-2531. And we've gotten some emails, as well. This is from Barbara in Red Bluff, California: Please don't limit this problem to judges and prosecutors. My husband practices criminal defense exclusively, private and indigent, through contracts with our superior court system.

Believe me, when an angry and irrational defendant is reactive, the defense counsel is also a target, and my husband's dealt with threats through his career, as well. We believe the situation is growing more and more dangerous as people seem to lose respect for the judicial system and human life in general.

This from Helen: As the child of an adult circuit court probation and parole officer, I understand these concerns. As a child if we bumped into one of my mom's parolees in the grocery store, she would be cordial, but she did not introduce us. We were trained never to ask someone's name nor introduce ourselves. She was required to keep our home phone number published, and that included our address. Early on, you learn to be careful.

Your address, Judge Harle, I assume you are very cautious with that.

HARLE: Well, it is, it's easily accessible. We have to file reports with the state that list properties that we own, and it wouldn't take very much for anybody to find out where you live. So you just have to be aware of that. But let me echo that first email. I was a defense attorney for a long time, and trust me, they get equally as serious threats because they have to deal with court-appointed clients that they didn't choose, that are irrational, as she stated, and those threats are often and perhaps even more often than what we see on the prosecutor and judges' side.

CONAN: John's on the line with us from Oklahoma City.

JOHN: Yes, hello, how are you?

CONAN: Fine. Thank you very much for calling.

JOHN: Yeah. I was going to comment on - the actual event, as transpired recently. I'm a security consultant for a company out here in Oklahoma City, and we work exclusively with the district attorney's office and the municipal courts. Now, we all privately hire, though, and I know in our situation, some of the prosecutors and judges that we protect and their families, we actually stay in the courtrooms with them and sometimes stay at home with them, up to 24 hours a day, and we do wear plain clothes. But we're in the courtrooms with them just a member of the actual court, so to speak, but...

CONAN: And this is presumably after some sort of credible threat?

JOHN: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, the only downfall is here in Oklahoma City, they currently don't have, in the city limits, an area in which the city or the state will help foot this bill, so to speak. So this is entirely out of these individuals' pockets, and it does get quite costly after a while.

CONAN: I can understand that. This is - these are highly trained professionals, and obviously, you don't want somebody who isn't highly trained.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: Yeah. See can say on firsthand knowledge, though, just really quick for your callers, is mitigation. You know, if one is aware of their surroundings beforehand, two-thirds of the time, you can alleviate any initial threat. It just - you have to be really, really aware and think outside the box, especially some of my clients. When they are targeted, a lot of times, you know, they'll focus the security on themselves, but their families become the initial target after that, as well. So it's tough.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much, and we appreciate the call.

JOHN: You bet.

CONAN: Here's an email, we have this from William in Media, Pennsylvania: Does angry criticism of a judge, prosecutor, law enforcement official qualify as a threat? Carl Caulk?

CAULK: Well, I would say angry criticism is kind of a relative term. I mean, we certainly - if it's criticism of a judge's ruling that they have made in a particular case, and we're certainly aware of and we respect individuals' First Amendment rights. So, I mean, we have a number of what we would consider to be kind of triggering events that would come into play whenever we assess whether or not somebody's kind of crossed a line. But angry criticism or criticism in of itself, we do not consider threatening. We consider it to be protected by an individual's First Amendment rights.

CONAN: We're talking about - after three murders now in Texas and one in Colorado, just in the past couple of months - about the threats received by cops, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and, as we're hearing, criminal defense attorneys, as well. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Looks like the phone system's back up. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guests, you just heard Carl Caulk, assistant director of judicial security for the U.S. Marshal Service, with us here in Studio 3A.

Also with us, Judge Sid Harle, a district court judge in San Antonio. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Judge Harle, as you consider the kinds of threats you face, is this something you signed up for? Is this something, had you known about it, might have change your decision about your career choices?

HARLE: Well, frankly, Neal, I was a prosecutor. I've been on the bench since 1988, but I was a prosecutor for several years before that, and I was a criminal defense attorney. And, you know, I enjoy what I do. I ran for the bench knowing exactly what happens and what could happen. You don't really have a lot of concern for yourself, but you always worry about dragging your family into it. And I've been fortunate in that the threats that I've received have not been credible to the extent that I was overly concerned about them, and I didn't have to have the 24/7 security.

But we do, in Bexar County, have that, and several of my fellow prosecutors and judges have had the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security until the threat level has been assessed to be minimal, or the individual has been caught. So it is - it's kind of part of the job, and you just, again, can't let it change your quality of life and can't let it change the way you rule on cases and run a fair and impartial court.

CONAN: Paula's on the line with us from Rockford, Illinois.

PAULA: Hi. My father was a chief felony prosecutor. And as a child, it was absolutely terrifying living with someone in that profession. We were threatened all the time, and we were told to take caution wherever we went. We had bomb threats. We had snipers trying to kill my father, trying to kill us. It was terrifying.

CONAN: And how did you cope with it, in the long run?

PAULA: Well, as I grew older, I'm a psychotherapist now, and I know now that we had post-traumatic stress. That's - all my brothers and I both developed - all three of us developed post-traumatic stress from living as children with a career prosecutor.

CONAN: And your dad?

PAULA: And my father was a tough Marine prosecutor, and he just worked through it. But that's not true for this family, and that's what's so difficult to hear in this situation, because I feel like families have been neglected in terms of their protection. One thing to the prosecutor, that's his career. That's his choice. The children are innocent victims.

CONAN: Carl Caulk, I know that families are, as we heard earlier, sometimes the first attention's deflected onto them, rather than the initial source of the anger.

CAULK: Yeah. We've actually had threats made against family members primarily, instead of our normal, what we would call our normal protectee. And in many of those cases, we've seen protection provided for not only a judge or a prosecutor or other court family member, but also for family members. I would echo Barbara's email in that defense counsel are subject to threat. We investigate threats involving defense counsel, as well, in the federal system.

I've seen defense counsel physically attacked in a courtroom more so than I have prosecutors inside of a courtroom. But certainly, family members become a part of the entire threat investigation. Our security briefings that are being given include family members and kind of what they can do from a personal security stand point, as well.

CONAN: Well, Paula, thank you very much for the phone call.

PAULA: And it works just fine as long as we know that there is an immediate threat, but the problem is those people who were prosecuted get out of prison, and then they often try to target the family. We had bomb threats put underneath our - we had to check the roofs of our cars and lids of our car before we got into them after college classes, because we were supposed to be having bombs underneath those. Now, if you know there's an immediate threat, then you can take care of it. But with prosecutors, they have cases for years that can eventually be a threat to them and their family, and they're not going to know about it until it happens.

CONAN: Again, Paula, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate. And our thanks, as well, to Judge Sid Harle, who joined us today from San Antonio, Texas. Appreciate your time.

HARLE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Carl Caulk of the U.S. - director of judicial security at the U.S. Marshal Service, who joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in. And again, all our thoughts go out to those families in Texas and in Colorado who's - well, suffered such terrible losses in the past couple of months. We hope this can be resolved very, very quickly. Thanks very much for your time today.

CAULK: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Coming up next, we'll be going to the Opinion Page and Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, who argues that we've got the Washington - what the Iraq War taught him about Syria. Stay with us for that, and we apologize for the problems with the phone system, as well. It's working. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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