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
- a judicial officer who is scholarly, even-tempered and
- committed and fearless jurors who hail from the involved
- victims who willingly come forward and make public their
- percipient witnesses comfortable in appearing on the
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?