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Law and Disorder : O.C. Judges, Attorneys Try to Keep Safe in Violent Courtrooms

August 23, 1992|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Divorce lawyer Robert Lemkin calls it an "escape hatch" at his Santa Ana law office--a hidden exit where he can make a quick departure from crazed clients or spouses who might want to kill him.

He's had an escape route ever since an incident 20 years ago when the ex-husband of one of his clients stormed into his office with a gun and threatened to kill him.

"I was scared stiff," recalls Lemkin, whose prominent Orange County clients have included John Wayne's daughter, Aissa. After a terrifying hour and a half, the man finally broke down and cried, handed Lemkin his revolver and left.

Lemkin, 65, now believes he needs more than just a back door. When he moves to a new office this year, he plans to also install a magnetic lock system to keep would-be assailants out of his office.

"Violence and family law seem to go together," he concedes.

It is one measure of how fear has become an everyday reality for attorneys, judges and others who deal with distraught litigants in a culture overcome by violence.

Lawyers have been shot to death and stabbed with ice picks, knives and pens. They've been slugged, threatened with vulgarities, spit at and even received depraved messages on their children's telephones.

Although violence is nothing new to those charged with upholding the law, a recent spate of incidents across the nation has turned some courtrooms, law offices and even the Los Angeles County Law Library into bloody battlegrounds.

In recent months, at least five lawyers and court officers have been killed, three judges have been seriously wounded and other private citizens have been shot to death or fatally stabbed during courthouse disputes. The bloodshed has heightened fears and led to renewed calls for tighter courtroom security.

Jurists say such violence can manipulate justice by delaying trials, forcing lawyers and judges off cases and even intimidating jurors and witnesses.

"It shouldn't surprise us that we are seeing more assaults in which lawyers or judges are the victims. The level of violence is up across the board," says Gerald Uelmen, dean at Santa Clara University's School of Law.

"Everybody has their breaking point" when they find themselves immersed in either domestic or criminal cases in the court system, says psychiatrist Neil Hartman, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. He adds that those with mental or emotional problems can be the most volatile.

On June 1, James Sinclair, who had a history of mental problems, shot his lawyer, Michael Friedman, to death inside the Los Angeles County Law Library. After shooting Friedman, 38, he fatally shot himself in the head. Witnesses reported that before he began firing, Sinclair said, "Attorneys have ruined the world; attorneys have done enough damage to the people."

As attacks have become more vicious, some judges and lawyers have resorted to arming themselves for protection.

After 17 years of practicing law, Santa Ana criminal defense attorney Greg Jones recently got a gun to protect himself against mentally ill clients--particularly one defendant who threatened him during a murder case.

"It's frightening. I could envision that person getting out of prison and tracking me down," he says.

Although Orange County Superior Court Judge Luis Cardenas doesn't carry a weapon, he says that "quite a few of my colleagues carry guns and go to the range frequently . . . to practice their sharpshooting skills."

"I'm sure there are some judges in this county and others who have guns in their chambers, but I don't know of anyone here who takes one on the bench," says Orange County Presiding Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood.

"My view is that the bailiffs provide adequate security. But I certainly wouldn't question the judgment of a jurist who believed they needed to carry a gun to court for their personal security."

One Orange County Superior Court judge in particular, according to Cardenas, "wears a gun every day. He started carrying a weapon after . . . he was specifically threatened. I saw him in the (courthouse) parking lot and he had a 9-millimeter gun tucked in his belt." The judge refused to comment.

Santa Monica attorney Kenneth Kahn was stabbed in the chest with an ice pick by a client in a courtroom in 1987. Despite the frightening assault, Kahn says he would never pack a gun for protection, nor does he believe it's proper for jurists to arm themselves in the courtroom.

"I think there are some judges who think they are sitting in the Old West. They think it's macho to have a gun underneath their black robe," says Kahn.

Even Van Nuys Judge Jessica Perrin Silvers, whose life was threatened in court by a man she once prosecuted, does not arm herself in court. Silvers, who says she feels "lucky to be alive," managed in 1989 to escape from a deranged defendant who held a gun to her head and then engaged a court bailiff in a gun battle that killed the defendant and wounded the bailiff.

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