United States District Court Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow was assigned a medical malpractice case filed by Bart Ross, an electrician. Lefkow, acting as judge, dismissed Ross’ lawsuit, which apparently enraged him. On February 28, 2005, Judge Lefkow returned to her home and found her husband and mother fatally shot in the basement. Ross committed suicide a couple weeks later, and confessed to the murders in his suicide note. DNA evidence also indicated that Ross was the killer. However, it turns out that white supremacist Mathew Hale was also trying to get a hitman to kill Judge Lefkow, after she ruled against him in a trademark lawsuit. Hale is now serving 40 years in prison for soliciting her murder. About a month ago, Judge Lefkow spoke out about the killings of her family members, and her previous home security arrangements. Her comments, and my thoughts, are below:
Speaking to an American Bar Association panel in Chicago about the tragedy, Judge Lefkow stated the following:
“I’ve gone over in my mind so many times what could have been done differently. . .”
[Lefkow said she was surprised to hear from an expert from the U.S. Marshals Service that a home security system could cost as little as $100. She said she and her husband had looked into buying a system but understood it would cost several thousand dollars.]
“We just didn’t do it,” she said. She said judges must make up their minds that “for the sake of my family, for the sake of myself, I just have to do it.”
[Lefkow said she now lives in a high-rise building with 24-hour security.]
I certainly agree with Judge Lefkow’s comments about the importance of having a home security system. However it doesn’t appear that a home security system would necessarily have prevented Judge Lefkow’s family from being murdered. That is because a security system will only alert the police and make noise. Assuming the 911 dispatchers and the police respond immediately and don’t drop the ball, help will be several minutes away, while a murder can complete their crime in seconds. Additionally, noise does not reliably scare away an attacker.
A couple of real-life examples make these points clearer. In one case, a man was asleep in his home when his burglar alarm woke him up. Standing over him was a knife wielding criminal, who forced the man to turn off the alarm, and then proceeded to rob the man at knife point. Luckily that man was a gun owner, and managed to grab a self defense gun and scare the criminal away. In another case, a woman was home sick from work when her burglar alarm went off. Despite the fact that the alarm was sounding the police were on their way, the criminals continued to break in. Upon seeing the woman, the three criminals fled. Amazingly, however, one of the criminal circled back and tried to break in yet again. Fortunately, the woman had a gun, and shot the home invader in self defense. In both of these examples, criminals continued to break in, despite the fact that a home security system’s alarm was sounding. Also note that unlike the man who killed Judge Lefkow’s family, there is no indication that the criminals in these two examples were suicidal. Nor does it appear that these criminals were driven by a hatred of the crime victim. If non-suicidal criminals who invade houses at random are willing to stick around while an alarm goes off and the police are en route, then it stands to reason that a suicidal criminal who hates his victim will be even less likely to flee upon hearing an alarm. Finally, note that the crime victims in the above examples were armed, and as a result were able to defend themselves. Had those crime victims not been armed, they could very well have been killed or seriously harmed by the home invaders.
My deepest condolences go out to Judge Lefkow on her tragic loss. I only hope that she and other judges learn from this tragedy, and arm themselves and their families to enable self defense. Criminals who attack judges and their families, effectively attacking the foundation of our legal system, should not have easy targets.
I also wanted to state the following, on the more general issue of disgruntled litigants targeting judges: Disagreeing with the ruling in a case is no excuse for violence towards the judge. Firstly, our society is so stable compared to many other countries because we generally respect the rule of law. Obviously criminals don’t (hence this website and my advocacy of armed self self dense), however the vast majority of Americans do generally respect the rule of law. That is why after even the most hotly contested and polarized presidential elections, power changes hands smoothly, without the rioting and bloodshed that go along with many 3rd world election cycles. Violence towards members of the judicial branch is perhaps the fastest way to undermine the rule of law and plunge our country into the type of situation often seen in developing countries. Secondly, many people without a legal education simply don’t understand what exact a judge does. They fail to understand how our legal system works, and as a result, blame the judge for what they see as an unfair trial result, when in fact the result bears no relation to the judge’s personal feelings on the matter. More specifically, judges rule based upon the law, and especially at the trial court level, are bound by the presidence handed down from higher courts. That means that a judge may rule one way, even when every fiber of their being wants to rule the other way. Judges in real life just don’t have the unfettered discretion that judges have on TV. Finally, even if, for the sake of argument, a Judge’s ruling was wrong, the proper remedy is to appeal and/or lobby the legislature for a change in the law. Physically attacking the judge or their family is simply inexcusable.