WASHINGTON — Threats against the nation's judges and prosecutors have sharply increased, prompting hundreds to get 24-hour protection from armed U.S. marshals.
Many federal judges are altering their routes to work, installing security systems at home, shielding their addresses by paying bills at the courthouse or refraining from registering to vote. Some even pack weapons on the bench.
The problem has become so pronounced that a high-tech "threat management" center recently opened in Arlington, Va., where a staff of about 25 marshals and analysts monitor a 24-hour number for reporting threats, use sophisticated mapping software to track those being threatened and tap into a classified database linked to the FBI and CIA.
The threats have more than doubled in the past six years, from 592 to 1,278, the U.S. Marshals Service said. Federal officials blame disgruntled defendants whose anger is fueled by the Internet; terrorism and gang cases that bring more violent offenders into federal court; frustration at the economic crisis; and the rise of the "sovereign citizen" movement — a loose collection of tax protesters, white supremacists and others who don't respect federal authority.
Concern also has been fueled by the slaying of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother in their Chicago home in 2005 and a rampage 11 days later by an Atlanta rape suspect, who killed a judge, the court stenographer and a deputy.
Threats have prompted a growing law enforcement crackdown. The U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges and prosecutors, says several hundred require 24-hour guarding for days, weeks or months at a time each year, depending on the case.
State court officials are seeing the same trend, although no numbers are available.
Threats are emerging in cases large and small, on the Internet, by telephone, in letters and in person.
In Washington, two men have pleaded not guilty to charges of vowing to kill a federal prosecutor and kidnap her adult son if she didn't drop a homicide investigation. The judge in the CIA leak case got threatening letters when he ordered Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff to prison. The face of a federal judge in Washington was put in a rifle's cross hairs on the Internet after he issued a controversial environmental ruling, judicial sources said.
The stress nearly overcame Michael Cicconetti, a municipal court judge in Painesville, Ohio, after police played a tape for him of a defendant in a minor tax case plotting to blow up the judge's house. Cicconetti evacuated his family for a terrifying week in which they were under guard and staying at friends' houses.
"I couldn't go to work for two weeks. I was too shaken up. I couldn't think," he said. The judge now has a security system in his home — and a stun gun within reach in court.