Huffpost Crime
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Judge Frederic Block Headshot

Risk and Reward: Inside the Life of a Federal Judge

Posted: Updated:

The startling revelation last month of the death threat against my colleague Judge Joseph Bianco, which was nipped in the bud by the F.B.I., reminded me of the death threat made against me a few years ago by Anthony Casso, who went by the charming nickname "Gaspipe." I wrote about this in my recently released book Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge. The purpose of the book was to try to reach out to the general public to create greater transparency about the real world of federal trial judges and what we really do. In the chapter titled "The Risks," I wrote about my colleagues who have been assassinated and the huge number of threats that are investigated each year by the F.B.I. and Marshal's Service. I did this so that the public would be aware that judges (as well as federal prosecutors and all other federal court officials) are truly at risk in the service of our country.

In light of the death threat to Judge Bianco, here are excerpts from that chapter to drive home the risks that judges face and to encourage Congress to take immediate action to provide better protection and security for my courthouse in Brooklyn and the public servants who toil there.

* * *

I was told about Gaspipe's threat to kill me by an F.B.I. special agent who looked like he came right out of central casting -- tall and handsome, with short-cropped hair. He went right to the point. He told me that the F.B.I. and the Marshal's Service annually investigate over 300 threats against Article III federal judges. This meant that about one-third of the circuit and district court judges were yearly at risk of bodily harm and death. I told him that when I took the job I had no idea that the risk level would be so high. He explained that it was the policy and practice of the F.B.I. and Marshal's Service to tell the judges at once about any threats and that they would be seriously and promptly investigated. After the investigation was completed, a threat-level assessment would be made. It would be either a low threat level, a potential danger level, or a serious threat level. The judge would, of course, be kept abreast of everything that was happening.

I thanked the special agent for giving me the good news. He reassured me by telling me that the threat was picked up through the jailhouse rumor mill and probably would not amount to much. Nonetheless, it would be seriously checked out. He would be in touch with me as the investigation unfolded. I asked him if there was anything that I should do in the meantime. He just told me to be careful. He also asked whether I would like to carry a gun. I told him that I had never shot one in my life and would probably shoot myself by mistake.

The United States Marshals Service (U.S.M.S.) has primary responsibility for ensuring safety and security for federal judicial proceedings and protecting the federal judges. These threats have increased dramatically during the last decade, growing from 592 in 2003 to approximately 1,400 in 2010. During this six-year period, there were 5,744 threats directed at federal judges and prosecutors. After the agent left, I was curious to learn whether I would be the first federal judge assassinated. I found out that if Gaspipe had his way, I would be the fourth during the last two decades.

John H. Wood was a district court judge for the Western District of Texas. He was assassinated on May 29, 1979, by Charles Harrelson -- the father of the actor Woody Harrelson. It was a contract killing orchestrated by the Texas drug lord Jamiel Chagra, who was waiting to be tried before Judge Wood. As a reminder of the dangers that judges face, the San Antonio federal courthouse now bears his name.

Richard J. Daronco was a district court judge closer to home. He sat on the Southern District bench in Manhattan. Judge Daronco was assassinated on May 21, 1988, by the father of a civil plaintiff whose case was dismissed by the judge. He was shot while doing yard work in front of his home.

Robert Smith Vance was a judge for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He was assassinated on December 16, 1989, when he opened a package containing a bomb, which immediately exploded. The package was the handiwork of Walter Leroy Moody, Jr., who had lost his appeal before that appellate court from his criminal conviction for possessing another bomb. Ironically, Judge Vance had nothing to do with the case; he was neither the trial judge nor on the appellate panel that affirmed Moody's conviction.

A few months later, the F.B.I. special agent returned and told me that Gaspipe's death threat had been classified as low risk. There was no tangible evidence that any contract had been placed on my life, and since Gaspipe was in a maximum security prison for the rest of his life, there was no risk that he could kill me -- as long as he did not escape.

Since then I have had two other death threats by other less-than model citizens. They, too, were classified as low risks, but the message was clear -- being a judge was no bed of roses. You were truly in the service of your country, and -- just like in combat -- you could lose your life.

Moreover, like the tragedy that recently struck my district court colleague from Chicago -- Judge Joan Lefkow -- your family was also at risk. On February 28, 2005, Judge Lefkow returned home late in the evening after a long day on the bench. Unbeknownst to her, Bart Ross, a disgruntled plaintiff in a medical malpractice case that the judge had tossed out of court, had learned where she lived and had come there earlier in the night to kill her. Judge Lefkow's mother and husband were at home waiting for her. When the judge finally arrived, Ross was nowhere in sight, but she found her mother and husband in the basement. They had been murdered.

Judge Lefkow had also been the target of threats five years earlier from Matthew Hale, a white supremacist. The judge had enjoined him from using the name that he had chosen for his organization. Hale was subsequently sentenced to a 40-year prison term for soliciting an undercover F.B.I. informant to kill her.

The state judiciaries also have hardly been immune from violent attacks from disgruntled litigants. In the same year that Judge Lefkow's mother and husband were killed, shootings outside of the local courthouse in Tyler, Texas left two people dead and four others wounded. A judge, a court reporter, and a deputy sheriff were also murdered in the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia.

On March 11, 2008 Victor Wright was brought into my courtroom to be sentenced by me to life after being convicted for serious drug crimes. He seemed to accept his impending fate because he had not shown any signs of hostility at any other time when he had been in court -- but not on this occasion. As he walked into my court--followed closely by two marshals -- he bolted past his attorney, razor in hand, and lunged at the prosecutor, Carolyn Pokorny, a 38-year-old AUSA, and started to choke her. All mayhem broke loose. Within seconds, Ron Tolkin, the court reporter (who was right there) and the marshals jumped on Wright. The razor fell to the ground, and the marshals were on the verge of inflicting a deadly choke hold on the defendant when he took his hands off the AUSA's throat.

I sat frozen and startled. I did not leave the bench and join in because the judges had been told during periodic security briefings not to do that because they would only be interfering with the trained marshals and could make matters worse. However, I took it on the chin in the Internet chat rooms the next day for being a wuss and not whacking the defendant with my gavel. Instead, I had followed instructions and pressed the security button under the judge's bench. Within 30 seconds, marshals were swarming all over the place, and the frightening potential disaster had been averted. Carolyn Pokorny had barely escaped with her life, but the imprint of Victor Wright's fingers on her neck -- which did not disappear for two weeks -- made her realize how close she had come to dying.

The incident was captured on tape by the monitors that are in every courtroom and was shown on national TV that night. It has become a training video for the Marshal's Service. It also raised a debate as to how to best guard against future violent courtroom episodes, and all hell was raised as to how the defendant was able to bring a razor into the courtroom.Regrettably, no significant changes have been made since I wrote my comments more than seven years ago. The Southern District still is the Green Zone, while in Brooklyn we are still Fallujah. There are no protective barriers around the courthouse and the patrol cars leave at 5 p.m. (certainly terrorists don't keep bankers' hours). While we have been told changes are in the works, it's high time to act at once.

Frederic Block has practiced law for 34 years. He was appointed to the federal district court as a judge in 1994 by President Clinton. Block is the author of Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge.