Violence casts a pall over state's courtrooms

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE and PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2011 - 11:24 AM

The shootings in Grand Marais were only the latest in a long list.

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The Cook County Courthouse is seen closed Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, in Grand Marais, Minn., after Thursday night's Cook County Courthouse shooting. Moments after a jury found Daniel Schlienz, 42, guilty on a sex charge Thursday, he retrieved a loaded gun from his car, marched back into a small courthouse and shot the prosecutor and a witness in his case, leaving both men bloodied and screaming for help. Both victims, including County Attorney Tim Scannell, survived but remained hospitalized.

Photo: Bob King, Associated Press

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An imprisoned felon is awaiting trial on charges he hired a hit man to kill a judge and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, and to harm a witness in his case.

In Elk River, a man being sentenced on drug charges fired his gun outside the courthouse in 2009 before deputies killed him.

Two years earlier, in Rice County, a man was sent to prison over a plot to blow up the historic courthouse in anger because of an earlier drug conviction.

The courthouse shooting of the county attorney in Grand Marais on Thursday casts stark new light on the rising threat of violence -- and significant security gaps -- within the halls of justice across Minnesota and the rest of the country.

"We have had an increasing number of people who are threatened or have had to deal with threats to them," said Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, which had a private security consultant speak about spotting potential threats at its annual meeting this month. "It's an attack on justice. It's an attack on our system."

In the days before the shooting that left Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell and one other person wounded, some of the state's county attorneys voiced concern that they be allowed to carry guns on the job.

Local prosecutors are the only lawyers not allowed by state law to carry a weapon on duty, said Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson, who penned a Dec. 7 letter expressing his concerns about the restriction.

"That was always an annoyance, but not much more than that, until somebody tried to kill my assistant county attorney," Arneson said, referring to an incident several years ago when a defendant, out on bail in a drug case, was accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill an assistant prosecutor and others. "Then it became a little more personal."

The court system has been taking steps statewide in the past year to address the growing threat. Law enforcement officers embarked on a new risk assessment training program for judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court employees in April. But they still don't have a precise accounting of the security risks in each of the state's 87 county courthouses, according to Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association.

"Unfortunately, that's something we will need to find out as we go forward,'' Franklin said Friday.

Franklin said the new training teaches court employees how to better predict threats, such as looking for people who are agitated and the types of weapons they may carry. Since April, about 300 employees across the state have attended the association's security courses, and more classes are scheduled for next year.

Franklin said there is an unwillingness throughout state government to make security screening mandatory in all courthouses. "We can't afford screening in every single courthouse," he said.

Hennepin County improved its security at the county government center, installing metal detectors and X-ray machines following a 2003 fatal shooting related to an estate battle. But there are still gaps.

The day before the shooting in Cook County, Hennepin officials received a proposal from the security director of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to review safety issues at seven unsecured court areas in the Minneapolis suburbs.

Suburban courtrooms handle misdemeanors including domestic assaults, traffic violations and other offenses, but don't have weapons screening at the door. Armed deputies are present, but some judges who face heavy workloads of up to 135 cases a day wonder if that's enough.

"You don't know who could have a gun," said Hennepin County District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman. "You don't know if it's the menacing-looking one or the one that looks like a pastor. You just don't know what you don't know, and that makes every day a risk."

Timm Fautsko, NCSC's security head, said a decision may come as early as January on deeper security assessments.

Fautsko's group has completed more than 200 security analyses of court systems nationwide. He said that even financially strained counties can take immediate steps to protect the safety of public officials and court employees. A lack of money for security equipment and staff is no excuse, he added.

"The clerks, the judges, the public defenders -- all of them have to be talking to each other about the daily potential for danger and violence and then having an action plan on what to do when someone senses something is about to happen," he said. "The lives of those people in small, rural communities are of equal value as those in Minneapolis."

In Minnesota, there have been at least seven court-related shootings or bombings since 1987, according to Steve Swensen, a St. Paul-based courthouse security expert who has studied courthouse violence going back decades. They include a 2008 case at the Morrison County Government Center in which hostages were taken before the suspect was shot and killed.

Swensen said last week's Cook County shooting marked the 12th case nationwide this year, the same as last year's total. The frequency of court violence has been increasing each decade dating back to the 1970s.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said he plans to introduce legislation next year to allow prosecutors to carry guns. He said the court system is facing funding challenges and it's not possible to install screening equipment at all courthouses.

In Sherburne County, the political will and money was found to install metal detectors and X-ray equipment on the second floor of the county's government center in Elk River following a 2009 shooting in the building's parking lot. Sheriff Joel Brott said the extra security helps make sure tense moments -- sentencings and custody battles -- don't escalate.

"Those are obviously very emotional situations for those folks to go through, and you don't want to give them an opportunity to overreact and do something that maybe, given a little time, they wouldn't do," he said.

Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report. Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777 Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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