Local News

Courtroom Dangers Exist, Despite Security Precautions

Posted July 12, 2006 10:29 a.m. EDT

— Durham County District Court Judge David LaBarre is well aware of the potential dangers inside the courtroom.

Every day, hundreds of inmates -- many with violent pasts -- enter through the doors of the county's courthouse.

"I have a little five-shot Derringer," LaBarre said. "It's not a big Clint Eastwood Magnum like Judge Pou Bailey used to carry. One never knows."

LaBarre, who has a permit to carry the gun and said he has received training on how to use it, started carrying the weapon after his car was torched in his driveway. He said he feared it could have been retaliation for a case. But he has never had to use the weapon while serving as a judge.

The threat of violence is always present in courtrooms, but local courthouses take many measures to help try to prevent incidents like Wednesday's courtroom shooting in Northampton County, during which an inmate was fatally shot in a struggle.

In Durham County, for example, a minimum of two officers stand guard in every courtroom, and inmates are shackled at all times.

"You never know what to expect," said Durham County Sheriff's Lt. J.D. Harris, "The thing of it is -- anything can happen."

Harris said deputies also do a complete sweep of the courtrooms.

"You don't know if someone can slip something to them," he said. "We stress to our deputies the importance of checking the courtrooms before and after hearings."

In Orange County, security is taken a step further. Some inmates make their first appearance via closed-circuit monitors. They stay in jail and never come in contact with the general public.

"The goal is to limit the window of opportunity," said Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Charles Blackwood, who oversees the handling of high-profile suspects.

When inmates do make courtroom appearances, Blackwood said, officers often use knee braces to keep inmates in check.

"The officer transporting the inmate may have to unlock a hinge for the person to sit down," Blackwood said. "(But) when he stands up, it locks and prevents him from running."

Orange County is also looking at using stingers -- similar to a Taser gun -- in the courtroom. The devices deliver a high-voltage shock to the inmate via a remote control, if needed.

Authorities, however, admit that no security plan is full-proof.

And that is exactly what LaBarre said he keeps in mind every time he walks into the courtroom.

"I think everyone's prudent to be prepared," he said.