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Justice system workers live with risk

Dangers beyond workplace just part of the job in S.C.

Post & Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Veteran prosecutor Bruce DuRant couldn’t help noticing the man eyeballing him from across the Charleston restaurant as he dined with his wife.

“It was unsettling,” he said.

DuRant, second-in-command at the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, finally got up and approached the man to find out what his problem was. “He told me I had put him in prison for 10 years,” he said.

The encounter illustrates the potential for risky run-ins that prosecutors, police and prison officials face daily as they try to keep the dangers of their professions from bleeding over into their private lives.

In DuRant’s case, the encounter ended in a benign fashion, with the man explaining that prison had been a blessing and had helped turn his life around. But DuRant knows it could have gone much differently.

He and his colleagues need only look to Kaufman, Texas, where the county district attorney and his wife were found shot to death Saturday in their home. The couple’s killing came just a few months after one of the D.A.'s assistant prosecutors was gunned down in January.

In March, Colorado’s prison chief was fatally shot to death at his front door, apparently by an ex-convict.

Every cop, prison guard and prosecutor knows the inherent risks in enforcing the law and the potential to engender bad blood and grudges from the folks they put behind bars.

Outright attacks have been somewhat rare. For example, the slain Texas district attorney is the 13th prosecutor killed in the U.S. since the National District Attorneys Association began its count in the 1960s.

But this latest wave of violence has driven home the need for law enforcement types to remain vigilant, even after the workday ends.

“This is a stark reminder that the work we do is serious and that we are dealing with some of the worst people in the world,” said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who represents the Beaufort area.

Many lawyers and judges around the state already hold concealed-weapons permits and carry firearms. Most courthouses and their adjoining offices also have metal detectors and officers monitoring entry.

But area prosecutors said they still plan to discuss the Texas and Colorado violence with their staffs and discuss possible precautions to enhance safety.

State Department of Corrections officials also tackled the issue at a recent wardens’ meeting. Some top staffers knew slain Colorado corrections director Tom Clements well and his death hit them hard, prison spokesman Clark Newsom said.

State prison officials discussed the need to remain vigilant for possible threats here and for staff members to vary their routines so as not to become easy targets for those who would wish them harm, Newsom said.

The State Law Enforcement Division and the state Attorney General’s Office said they know of no active threats against state or local authorities and have issued no official advisories.

Still, South Carolina has had similar incidents in the past.

In March 2010, a gunman burst into the Sumter home of corrections Capt. Robert Johnson and shot him six times. Johnson survived but was forced to retire. He and corrections officials have said the shooting was a “hit” ordered by a vengeful inmate upset over Johnson’s efforts to rid Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville of illegal cellphones and other contraband.

Eight years earlier, a former client with a grudge and an accomplice invaded the home of prominent Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling. They bound him, his wife and daughter; held them at gunpoint; and ransacked their home.

Closer to home, a former surgical resident at the Medical University of South Carolina accused of stalking a woman in 2010 caused a stir in Charleston County last year after sending a shipment of Care Bears to court officials and an email that appeared to reference a mass shooting. Those actions helped land Karl Ehrens in a psychiatric facility while he awaits trial.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said investigators took a close look at Ehrens, as they do all potential threats to court officials. Security is of particular concern, given the growing societal distrust of government and the various groups that have emerged with “violence as a part of their agenda,” he said.

“We have for a while tried to enhance the situational awareness around the court facility, the court and government officials, not just the prosecutors,” Cannon said. “And certainly there have been any number of incidents around courthouses in general in the last few years ... which are very troubling and certainly leads us to be more concerned.”

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who represents Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, said he has received death threats in the past and he takes them all seriously. He also recently contacted SLED about a “very serious” death threat made against a criminal defense attorney whose client was unhappy about his sentence, he said.

But Pascoe said prosecutors also need to be wary of threats that aren’t as obvious.

DuRant agreed, saying court officials must be mindful that danger can lurk well beyond the courthouse doors.

“Let’s face it, the job has inherent risks to it, and that’s one,” he said. “As a general rule, security in the courtroom is adequate, but you always have to go to and from work and there is a home you have to go to as well.”

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