Late on a Friday afternoon in 1989, Judge James E. Findley (now deceased), one of the three superior-court judges of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, which includes the superior court of Liberty County, was conducting a hearing for parties involved in a dispute over child support and alimony. The plaintiff, the former wife of a retired soldier, alleged that her ex-husband, the defendant, owed her substantial unpaid amounts for both forms of postdivorce support.
After finding from the evidence that the defendant indeed owed the arrearages, Judge Findley leaned over from his dais and implored the man to voluntarily pay his former wife what was owed. Judge Findley warned the defendant that his refusal to comply with the order would leave the court no alternative but to find the defendant in willful contempt of court, which could be punished by incarceration until such amounts were paid.
The defendant said taciturnly that he was not paying his ex-wife anything. He paused, pulled a pistol from his pocket and began shooting in his ex-wife’s direction. One bullet grazed the neck of her attorney, Jeff Arnold, who at the time was a partner in the law firm of Jones, Osteen, Jones and Arnold. Another bullet almost hit the plaintiff, who was ultimately the target. Other rounds were discharged.
The man ran from the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse (which, at the time, was the only courtroom for the courts of the county), chased by a bailiff, Booker T. Burley (who recently passed away). Outside the courthouse, the man stopped running, pointed the pistol at his head and fired a final round, immediately ending his life.
The greatest blessing for those in the courtroom that afternoon was that the man had poor aim. Other than to himself, he did not cause serious physical harm to anyone. He could have killed anyone present.
Back then, catastrophic and willful acts of violence —which we have unfortunately become accustomed to hearing about or experiencing on a daily basis in modern-day America — rarely occurred in this country. Some of us who worked every day in the trenches long worried, however, that such tragic and heinous events could occur and warned decision-makers who control purse strings that measures should be established to minimize opportunities for violence in or around the courthouse. Our only concern was the safety and welfare of those who avail themselves of and work within the judicial system — an arena in which people’s lives are often permanently affected and altered and which, therefore, sometimes stirs the kind of anger, hatred and disdain that would cause an otherwise law-abiding citizen and a decorated veteran who went to war to defend everyone’s liberty to launch a private assault on others.
Funding was an excuse, but the greatest impediment to implementation of rudimentary security measures necessary to diminish the probability and opportunity for anyone to unlawfully carry a handgun or any other weapon into the courthouse or any other public facility, or to perpetrate any act of violence on any person or official therein, was the mindset of those empowered to make critical decisions necessary for providing security.
“That’s never going to happen. Nobody’s going to do anything like that in the courthouse,” I was told when I told others that security was needed a year before our courthouse shooting occurred.
A security system for the courthouse was established soon after the event. Former Sheriff R.V. “Bobby” Sikes and his staff quickly acquired magna-detector machines from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and hired full-time deputy sheriffs as security officers responsible for screening all persons entering the courthouse to ensure that weapons were not brought into the facility. (Several years later, Sheriff J. Don Martin replaced the screening devices with more-advanced, used machines obtained from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport). However, providing adequate security for the courthouse was a nightmare for both sheriffs because the logistics of the historical courthouse, built in the 1800s and renovated numerous times thereafter, were counterproductive to facilitating state-of-the-art security measures. There were too many points of access to control.
When stakeholders began in the late 1990s the planning process for construction of the Liberty County Justice Center, providing for stringent security was the paramount concern for everyone. Consequently, since the facility opened in May 2010, security officers employed by Sheriff Steve Sikes have provided security for the Justice Center. Chief Security Officer Charles Brady and his staff screen every person entering the facility, using X-ray machines to ensure that no one brings into the building weapons and other devices prohibited by law or court order. Security is provided any time a court event is scheduled or whenever anyone other than an authorized court official is in facility. Sheriff’s security staff also provides security for the county-courthouse annex during regular work hours and after hours for county commission and other meetings and for the historical courthouse when juvenile court is in session.
The National Center for State Courts reported recently that the number of threats of violence on judicial officers has more than doubled during the past eight years. The Center for Judicial and Executive Security also reports that number of violent incidents in courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. Ironically, most acts of violence on judicial officers or in judicial facilities stem from domestic-relations cases. The world has changed. There is no sanctity for life — even in the “halls of justice.”
Those of us who work in the court system greatly appreciate the serious commitment of Sheriff Steve Sikes and his staff to security. The inconvenience heightened security measures cause those who enter judicial and other facilities is unfortunately necessary to help protect the lives of everyone working in and using those facilities. The cost is justified by the lives that are protected.
For more information, go to www.libertyco.com/info/BWilkes.html.