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December

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Lawyers Journal

Diminished courthouse 
security, the 
rule of law

It seems axiomatic that courthouses should be among the safest places in our communities. They are, after all, halls of justice where individuals and institutions are summonsed to appear before their peers to answer for their acts and omissions. The images that should come to mind follow:

  • a building and room that bespeaks of the power and majesty of the law;
  • a judicial officer who is scholarly, even-tempered and unbiased;
  • committed and fearless jurors who hail from the involved community;
  • victims who willingly come forward and make public their travails; and
  • percipient witnesses comfortable in appearing on the stand.

Like conflicts of interests, the appearance of safe and secure courthouses has meaning too.

The dirty secret among the members of the bench, knowledgeable court personnel, prosecutors, defense lawyers and other practitioners is that insecure and unsafe courthouses and courtrooms are a prominent byproduct of radically reduced budgets and multiple years of diminished staff caused by the combination of attrition and hiring freezes.

Is the concern real? Consider these events.

In April 2011, Jaquan Bennett, a convicted felon on probation for possession of an illegal firearm, and some of his friends attended the arraignment of their colleague, Girold Grand-Pierre, on an illegal firearm charge in the Roxbury District Court. Grand-Pierre had tossed two revolvers into a dumpster with the police in hot pursuit. Court officials expressed concerns to the Boston Police Youth Violence Strike Force about the presence of Bennett and his colleagues at the arraignment. When Bennett left the courthouse, Boston Police found a 9 mm handgun in the pouch on the back of the right front passenger's seat of his car. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said it all: "Whatever his intentions, absolutely nothing good can come of a loaded handgun in the hands of a felon outside one of New England's busiest courthouses."

Under comparable circumstances a few months ago, District Attorney Conley began the prosecution of four young men who were threatening physical harm to victim witnesses in a criminal case in the Dorchester District Court. Indeed, it is said to be common for gang members to walk about the courthouse environs with cell phones in hand to photograph witnesses (or to give the appearance of photographing them) as a means of intimidation.

Intimidation of witnesses can be entirely psychological. For example, a North Shore lawyer charged with stealing signs from an ice cream shop was said to be standing at the shop owner's window glaring at her. In a highly publicized social host case pending in Superior Court, one of the young male defendants placed dead rats in the school locker of a female classmate and verbally harassed her in the corridors and lunchroom.

Intimidation and violence directed toward witnesses to crimes can be spectacular. Take the case against Caius Veiovis. He is charged (along with two others) with murdering David Glasser to prevent him from testifying in a drug case. Two other men were also killed, apparently because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Who among us can forget Assistant Attorney General Paul McLaughlin, who was murdered as he departed a commuter train at West Roxbury by carjacker Jeffrey Bly in 1995?

The ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" protests bring to mind violent acts directed at courthouses because they are symbols of American democracy, might and power. Our President-elect Robert L. Holloway Jr. was in the Suffolk County Superior Court when Ray Luc Levasseur and his self-proclaimed "United Freedom Front" bombed the courthouse in 1976 for some illusory, ephemeral purpose. Edmund Narine of Mission Hill lost his leg in that bombing as he stood waiting for a document on the second floor. Levasseur described Narine's injuries as "collateral damage" from a "war."

Violence in the courtroom is an ever-present danger. In a recent street crime trial in Suffolk Superior Court, multiple trial sessions were shut down so that court officers could be reassigned to the courtroom when the verdict was rendered. Nonetheless, when a guilty verdict was read by the clerk, a melee ensued. It took all hands to restore order.

In the business session (of all places), Hank and Alan Lewis, two well-heeled brothers engaged in a bitter family dispute over money and property, physically attacked each other in the courtroom.

Here is my thesis. If the general public comes to perceive courthouses as unreasonably dangerous venues where their physical safety and well-being are put at risk, they will not appear as witnesses or as jurors. More importantly, if violent criminals and abusive litigants come to understand the precarious state of affairs in our courthouses, they will take advantage of the lack of security to achieve their unsavory goals.

Proper and adequate funding of the judiciary is necessary to keep our courthouses and courtrooms and the ordinary citizens who are brought to them safe. What can be more fundamental?

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association