Dayton area judges are accustomed to hearing outbursts from defendants inside the courtroom, but now there is growing concern about what can happen outside, including death threats.
“It really comes with the territory, I hate to say,” said Montgomery County Common Pleas Administrative Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, who had a former defendant threaten her life. “He was attempting, from prison, to hire someone to kill me, his intended victim (the girlfriend targeted in his original case) and the prosecutor. That threat was intercepted by another inmate who attempted to use it to his advantage.”
Huffman identified the threatening inmate as Samuel Stein, who she had sentenced to nine years in prison for conspiracy to commit aggravated murder in 2012. He was never charged with the threat against the judge, Huffman said, because the other inmate who first brought the incident to light declined to cooperate when prosecutors said they would not give into his demand for a shorter sentence. Stein remains incarcerated at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion.
Although the public rarely hears about threats to judges, Huffman said all judges get them. “We all receive threats like that, not routinely, but I would say at least once a year. And it is because the individual does not like the result and that is translated into ‘it must be the judge’s fault’ because the judge ordered the sentence.”
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Not all of the threats come in murder or attempted murder cases. In February, Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi received a threat made on social media. It happened when he told the suspects in a robbery case that they may be tried as adults and, if convicted, may face up to 15 years in prison. Someone connected to one of the suspects posted on Facebook: “If I ever see him (Capizzi) I’m beating the **** out of him. He better pray I don’t catch him downtown coming out of that building.”
An investigation led to two Dayton men, Devin Wilson and Marquan Cooper, who have since been charged with making the threat.
While Capizzi would not comment on the Facebook threat, he said judges can’t allow themselves to be intimidated.
“I may be concerned for my family and myself, personal safety, but no one is going to threaten me. No one should threaten any judge to the point where the judge is going to change their decision because of the threat,” Capizzi said.
An incident last year in Jefferson County, about 200 miles east of Dayton, showed how vulnerable judges can be. A man pulled a gun and wounded Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese, Jr. outside the courthouse there, prompting the judge and a nearby armed county employee to return fire. The attacker was killed, but that and encounters around the country have led to security reviews.
Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Dennis Adkins initiated a study of security issues in and around the courthouse and found a recent rise in the number of threats. The cause?
“I think the media has contributed to it to be quite honest with you,” Adkins said. “Anybody will do whatever it takes to get on TV anymore and sometimes that happens. I think also there has been a general decline of respect for authority across the country.”
Adkins presented his findings to the county commissioners recently. Although he didn’t request additional funding, that may come eventually.
“Sometimes it is hard to keep up with the pace and get the most modern technology that we need and also it is a fight with budget restraints,” Adkins said. “It is costly to put in adequate security and have enough deputies here. Those are all costs that fall back on the county to provide so that is a continuing struggle that we have.”
Many judges have taken steps to improve their own personal security. Greene County Common Pleas Court Judge Stephen Wolaver acknowledged that he carries a firearm, and surveys show many other judges do too.
“I have a carry conceal permit. I get certified with the Sheriff’s department every year. I feel comfortable using a firearm,” Wolaver said.
A 2017 survey of 1,200 judges around the country by the Nevada-based National Judicial College found 1 out of every 4 judges carries a gun. Others who responded to the survey said they would like to carry a weapon with them around the courthouse but are prevented from doing so by local laws.
A bill introduced at the Ohio Statehouse by Rep. Nino Vitale, R—Urbana, would allow any elected office holder, including judges, to carry a gun, even in all government facilities. That proposal has been stalled in a House committee since September of last year.
‘We are all careful’
Beyond providing their own armed security, judges have also been instructed on how to keep themselves and their family members safe in their daily routines.
In a publication from the National Center For State Courts, judges are advised to not “let their guard down,” even at home. Something as simple as answering a knock on the door could be a security threat, so the advisory urges judges not to open any door without knowing who is on the other side.
Judges are even cautioned to guard against someone finding out where they live by following them home. The advisory reads: “Do not always drive the same route to or from your home or office.”
Huffman said area judges don’t let threats influence their decision-making process, nor do they live in fear of what may come in the future when a defendant or family member wants to take their anger out on someone.
Judges are, however, becoming increasingly careful about what they say and do to protect themselves and their family members, Huffman said.
“We are all careful to watch when we leave the building, when we enter the building, our homes, our on-line presence. We do not discuss when we are on vacation,” she said. “We do not discuss when we are going to a conference so that members of the public, quite frankly, don’t know where they can find you.”