All it takes is a split second and an opportunity.
Earlier this month, Brian Gene Nichols, who was headed to court in Atlanta to stand trial for rape, overpowered a deputy, grabbed her gun, then shot and killed the judge he was scheduled to appear before. Before he was caught, Nichols allegedly shot three more people, hijacked a car and took a woman hostage.
"It could happen anywhere, in reality, no matter what type of security measures you have in place," said Cape Girardeau County Jail administrator James Mulcahy, who is also in charge of courthouse security.
It happened in Pulaski County, Ill., in 1994, when John Rose of Olmsted shot Wallace Bobo of Mound City on the courthouse steps.
Within months, the Pulaski County Board of Commissioners spent $7,000 on a metal detector and closed three of the building's four entrances. A deputy is permanently stationed at the entrance of the courthouse in Mound City, and there are always deputies in the courtroom when court is in session, said Sheriff Randy Kern. Extra deputies or even state troopers are stationed in the courthouse during any high-profile court case, the sheriff said.
In Cape Girardeau, Scott and Perry counties, security is tight, but it hasn't yet come to the point of locking doors and installing free-standing metal detectors.
People entering the county courthouses are still free to walk through any entrance without being stopped and searched, but no one knows how long that will continue.
"I'm sure before too long it will be harder to get to the courthouse and take care of business," Mulcahy said. "I think we do pretty good, but anything could happen."
Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter said that some courthouse employees have expressed some concern about their safety since the Atlanta incident.
"We will have our people doing a normal walk-through to make sure we will have more of a presence from now on," Walter said. "Nobody has approached me from the courthouse about trying to limit access. It's a public building. We have to worry about security, but we also have to have the freedom to move about."
In each of the three counties, those in charge of courthouse security did not want to be specific about what security measures are in place regarding prisoners going from jail to the courtrooms so as not to breach that security. But they would say that courtroom personnel have quick, direct access to the sheriff's department. Extra security personnel are brought in for high-profile trials and hearings. Hand-held metal-detectors are brought out for some cases, and in some instances the courtrooms are searched between court sessions.
Defendants brought before a jury are not usually shackled or wearing their jail clothes so as not to prejudice the jury and to ensure a fair trial. To compensate for that, most courts will bring in extra security.
For all other court appearances, though, defendants are brought to court in their jail clothes, with handcuffs and leg shackles. They can move enough to get to the judge's bench, they can sign legal papers, but they can't move with enough agility to overpower a deputy and take a gun, Mulcahy said.
In most instances, there are few problems. Last fall one suspect, Paul Oakley, escaped from the courtroom when his bond was revoked and he was remanded back to jail. He was caught within an hour. That's the only escape Mulcahy said he can remember.
"I've been here 13 years and we have not had a weapon brought into the courtroom," he said. "We have had some people act out in court. We can probably go a whole year and not have a fight in the courtroom. That tells us the demeanor of the people in the community; it says a lot for us."
An added measure of security in Cape Girardeau and Scott counties is the video-conference system where inmates can appear before the judge for their first hearing without leaving the jail.
Perry County Sheriff Gary Schaaf said some people in court have become upset with a court ruling and acted out, but have not gotten violent.
"We have enough people to escort them from the premises," he said.
Courthouse personnel say they are prepared for any event. Each courthouse has either a deputy or a bailiff in each courtroom. Cape Girardeau County has four bailiffs and keeps each courtroom staffed. If need be, Mulcahy said, he calls in deputies from other divisions to make sure each judge has a bailiff. On some days, he said, as many as six courts could be in session.
In the three counties, a beefed-up security system is not a high priority because of the expense and because there is not an immediate need.
Schaaf said he sent away for some information about security systems just to see what is available and how much it costs.
"It hasn't really been discussed," Schaaf said. "Whenever something happens we will take a look at it. It's the same way with everything else. You can't justify it until something happens, then everybody wants to throw money at it."
There is a general reluctance to want to put in the kind of security systems people associate with high-crime urban areas, and a reluctance to let go of the notion that people can come and go freely in a county courthouse.
"That's why we live here," said Walter of Scott County. "We don't want those problems; we don't think we have these problems. Unfortunately it's the times we live in."
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