Citizens Have a Right to Safety in the Courthouse

Article excerpt

The news traveled quickly to the top of the King County Courthouse in the heart if downtown Seattle: eleven floors below, three women had been cut down by a hail of gunfire. It was the morning of Thursday, March 2, 1995, when Timothy Blackwell entered the courthouse to attend closing arguments in his marriage-dissolution trial. His pregnant, estranged wife Susana and two of her friends were sitting on a bench outside a second-floor courtroom. Blackwell pulled a 9mm semiautomatic pistol from his briefcase and shot all three women at close range. Susana Blackwell and Phoebe Dizon died at the scene. The third shooting victim, Veronica Johnson, died the following day. That day, I was working on the twelfth floor of the courthouse as a King County Council aide. I well remember the horror of that day as county employees mourned these senseless deaths while facing new fears for their own safety.

This tragedy did not come without warning. A King County Superior Court security report found that forty-six handguns were confiscated from courthouse visitors in the first five months of 1994. In 1993 security staff members logged 2,000 incidents in the courthouse, almost one-quarter of which involved fights, assaults, or threats of violence. Hours after the triple murder, an anonymous King County Superior Court judge told Seattle Times reporters, "This was totally predictable and inevitable. This is the most dangerous building to work in the county."

Resulting Changes. The deaths of these three women were all the more tragic because they could have been prevented. By 1995 Washington state legislators had made significant advances on the issue of citizen safety in public buildings, including courthouses. While previous state law specifically stated that firearms were not allowed in courtrooms, it did not allow for general firearms bans in any public buildings. In 1993 State Rep. Rosa Franklin of Tacoma successfully championed legislation to allow entrance screening for weapons, but only in county courthouses with a proven history of security problems. However, in a state such as Washington, where courts are controlled locally and counties are specifically responsible for security in their own superior and district courts, it took time for the work legislators had done on the state level to be implemented by local jurisdictions.

In Rep. Franklin's home county, Pierce County, weapons screening was imposed at courthouse entrances by September 1994. The King County Council also approved $200,000 in funding to purchase eleven metal detectors in May 1994, almost a year before the murders. However, the detectors had not yet been purchased, as money had not been allocated through the regular budget process to fund personnel to operate the machines. The delay was not strictly due to financial constraints: Several judges and the sheriff had urged the council just months before the shootings to buy X-ray machines to screen bags and to purchase more metal detectors. But Councilmember Kent Pullen, a gun-rights advocate, delayed a vote on the issue.

The day after the shootings, King County executive Gary Locke immediately ordered screening at all courthouse entrances. Within days, the King County Council approved an emergency allocation of $412,000 to purchase X-ray machines, acquire more metal detectors, and pay for entrance-security personnel. Other urban court facilities followed suit. To the north, courts in Snohomish County began entrance screening four days after the King County shootings. Across Lake Washington, the city of Bellevue's district court joined them a week later. The results of courthouse entrance screening were stunning. In the first year of the King County Courthouse program, some 1,200 weapons, including 715 guns, were discovered in the possession of courthouse visitors. Originally, only firearms and illegal knives were banned. Within three years, complaints by courthouse employees to the media led to an order from the presiding superior court judge adding legal knives, screwdrivers, scissors, letter openers, and chemical sprays such as mace or pepper spray to the list of items confiscated at courthouse entrances. …