Security reviewed in wake of shootings

March 15, 2005|by DON AINES and DAVE McMILLION

TRI-STATE - Hours after Friday's courthouse shootings in Atlanta, Franklin County Sheriff Robert Wollyung said he met with deputies to review courtroom security procedures.

"It is so easy to become complacent," Wollyung said Monday, as more than 200 people were in the courthouse for jury selection. He said some changes likely will come from lessons learned in the Atlanta incident in which Brian Nichols is accused of overpowering a security guard, grabbing her gun and killing four people, including a judge.

One change Wollyung said already had been made is spot-checking jurors. Before, those selected received juror badges and passed through the first floor metal detector without inspection.


Some jurors and employees are now being spot-checked at the courthouse entrance, along with employees at the Administrative Annex and Human Services buildings, a policy that went into effect well before the shootings, Wollyung said.

While almost all prisoners are compliant when transported from the prison to the courthouse holding cells and to the courtrooms, "no one knows the one that is not going to be," he said.

When a jailed defendant goes to trial, he is allowed to change into street clothes and is unshackled either in the courtroom, or just outside if the jury already has been seated, Wollyung said.

"Generally speaking, you're not going to find a prisoner with less than two deputies" when being escorted to a courtroom, the sheriff said. Deputies are armed in the courtrooms and elsewhere, but all are trained in "weapon retention," he said.

The holsters are designed so that a handgun cannot simply be pulled out, but that a series of steps has to be followed, he said.

Both handcuffs and leg irons are used for some prisoners who are believed to pose a greater risk, he said. He mentioned one murder trial in which a plainclothes deputy was seated near the defendant in addition to regular security measures.

Wollyung said more needs to be known about what happened in Atlanta - how and why Nichols was left alone with a deputy, where the room was in relation to the courtroom, and the type of weapon and holster used by the deputy.

Pocketknives and scissors are the most common items temporarily confiscated from men and women entering county buildings, Wollyung said. In the past year, three men entered the courthouse with handguns, but told security personnel.

All three had handgun permits, he said. In such cases, people usually are told to leave the weapons in their vehicles, Wollyung said.

It has been seven or eight years since someone was arrested in the courthouse for illegally carrying a firearm, he said.

"I'm not going to say it's impossible to get a weapon into a courtroom," Wollyung said. "No one can say that."

In the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, security has not been increased in Berkeley County courts, although it probably will be an issue that will be discussed with Circuit Court judges, Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith said Monday.

Smith said he thinks courtroom security personnel will be more aware of possible threats to security in local courts after what took place in Atlanta.

To help prevent problems in Berkeley County courts, Smith said he believes all defendants should be held in shackles.

Jesse Jones, chief deputy of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, agreed.

"You've got to start thinking about the security of the courtroom," Jones said.

As in Berkeley County, there were no immediate plans to increase security in Jefferson County courts Monday, Jones said.

Officials were not available for comment about security at a U.S. District court in Martinsburg.

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