Published February 17. 2013 4:00AM
Attorney Thomas W. Teixeira started thinking about courthouse security while sitting in a Norwich courtroom during a recent murder trial.
Two factions of young people were watching the case, which involved local residents with colorful street names, and the tension was palpable. Teixeira wondered how he would escape the second-floor courtroom if violence erupted.
It was around the same time that 20 children and six adults were shot and killed by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, raising questions about security in all public buildings.
Teixeira got to thinking about whether judicial marshals, who carry only a baton and pepper spray, are adequately equipped to keep the state's courthouses safe.
He wrote a letter calling on the Judicial Branch to arm at least one marshal in each state courthouse and to provide training and guns to those who transport prisoners.
In Hartford, top judicial officials said they were already reviewing existing security policies and procedures.
"Clearly it was precipitated in large part by the Sandy Hook tragedy," Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, the state's deputy chief court administrator, said in a recent phone interview.
Security at the state's 42 courts and 30 other offices has been a priority for Chief Justice Chase Rodgers since she was sworn in nearly six years ago, according to Carroll.
"She has said it's the one thing that keeps her awake at night," he said.
That was before Monday's news reports that a man involved in a custody dispute walked into the public lobby of a Wilmington, Del., courthouse and opened fire, killing his ex-wife and one other person. The man exchanged gunfire with police, then shot himself. According to reports, the Delaware state court system uses armed police officers, roaming court bailiffs and a police dog to protect the 12-story courthouse.
Back in Connecticut, all security measures are on the table for discussion and review, including arming some of the state's judicial marshals, Carroll said. The marshals have not had guns since the Judicial Branch assumed the duties of the high sheriffs in 2000.
"We've talked about that in the past," Carroll said. "Obviously times change, needs change, and it's something we are going to consider."
Teixeira hesitated to call attention to what he considers weaknesses in courthouse security but said he decided to make his letter public because he would feel terrible if something happened and he had said nothing.
"Many want to place an armed officer in every school to prevent the extremely rare occurrence when a violent, unstable person approaches or enters a school building," he wrote. "Yet every day across this state, violent, unstable people line up in numbers to enter our courthouses. They do so under extreme duress, usually facing dire consequences and often with their enemies or victims standing just a few feet away. And the men and women charged with protecting everyone in this most pressure-packed environment lack the means to protect even themselves."
Scanners, metal detectors
More than 7 million people enter state judicial facilities through metal detectors each year, according to Joseph D. D'Alesio, executive director of Superior Court operations. The facility entrances also are equipped with X-ray scanners to show the contents of purses, briefcases and other items. Marshals use hand-held metal detectors to double-check those who set off the walk-through units.
Judge Carroll said staffing the courthouse entryways is perhaps the most important duty that marshals perform. He said he has been surprised at some of the items - knives and other sharp objects - that marshals have seized from visitors.
Though courthouses are predominately gun-free, there are a few exceptions. The inspectors who work in the state's attorney's offices are sworn law-enforcement personnel who are allowed to carry concealed weapons. Police officers in plain clothes can carry concealed guns into courthouses. Uniformed police can carry guns into court, and even into a courtroom, with a judge's permission.
Connecticut's judicial marshals transport an average of 584 prisoners between courthouses and correctional facilities each day. Teixeira fears the unarmed judicial marshals would be unable to protect themselves, their prisoners and the public should something happen on a roadway.
The marshals also staff courthouse-holding facilities and are stationed inside courtrooms to maintain order. While Carroll said he would like to have a marshal stationed in every courtroom, including those where family and civil cases are heard, there are not enough marshals for that. Criminal courtrooms, lockup areas and prisoner transportation take priority, he said.
The Office of Policy and Management initially recommended that there be 1,080 judicial marshals statewide, but funded only 920, according to D'Alesio.
"With the budget the way it is, we feel the optimal number for us is 820," he said. "We're at 741 right now, including a class in session."
New marshals complete a 14-week training program covering topics such as management of aggressive behavior, CPR and crisis intervention, before they are accredited, D'Alesio said. They all undergo semi-annual training.
Shots fired in courtrooms
Superior Court Judge Kevin P. McMahon said he would feel better if there were armed marshals or former police officers in courthouses, provided they were well-trained.
"Do I think it's urgent? No," he said. "But would we kick ourselves if we didn't do something and something happened? Yes."
McMahon, who has presided over criminal cases for 20 years, says at some point in every courtroom he has ever sat in, he has thought, "How would I get out of here if something happened?"
In 2003, McMahon was presiding over a sexual assault trial in New London when a frustrated juror burst into a courtroom and shouted, "Don't shoot! I've got a gun." People fled the courtroom in panic. Marshals detained the man, who was not armed, and McMahon declared a mistrial.
So-called "panic buttons" that summon marshals are placed strategically in courthouses, but some wonder whether unarmed marshals would be able to respond appropriately to a shooting.
"If you hear shots fired and you're a marshal, are you going to go running in there to get yourself shot?" McMahon asked.
State police have jurisdiction over courthouses, and in the event troopers are not nearby, local departments may be called as backup.
"We have a good relationship with the Connecticut State Police, and when we know we have a potentially volatile situation, the chief judicial marshal will contact them and let them know," Carroll said.
McMahon said criminals tend to "play the game" in court as they try to get deals in their cases, but occasionally someone acts out.
"It's the family court where you have the problems," he said.
The last court-related shooting in Connecticut was in June 2005, when retired state trooper Michael Bochicchio, in the midst of divorce and custody proceedings, fatally shot his estranged wife and critically wounded her lawyer before turning the gun on himself on the top deck of a Middletown parking garage used by the court.
Closer to home, another divorce case ended violently in 1984, when Kenneth Spargo of East Lyme walked into a crowded courtroom in Norwich, pulled a 9 mm pistol from his coat pocket and fatally shot his estranged wife. He surrendered at the scene and was sentenced a year later to 20 years in prison, suspended after 12 years served, and five years probation. A jury had found that he acted under "extreme emotional distress."
New London attorney Edward B. O'Connell, representing the victim's estate, brought a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the court's metal detector, using as evidence Spargo's testimony that he had carried the gun through the metal detector.
O'Connell said there was evidence that the metal detector worked before and after Spargo walked through.
"For some reason, that particular gun did not set it off," O'Connell said. "They (metal detectors) were not as sophisticated as they are now."