Let’s kill all the lawyers? It’s not a punch line anymore

LANSING — There was the lawyer who stabbed an opposing attorney in the shoulder with a pen in the courthouse. And the litigant who tried to run down a lawyer with a tractor. And the client who, angry about his bill, smashed his lawyer’s car hood with a baseball bat.

Unusual? Not at all in Michigan, according to a newly published study.

Death threats, assaults, stalking and verbal promises to “hurt your family” or “make you disappear” aren’t rare, and 36.2 percent of lawyers surveyed in the state said they’ve been threatened or physically attacked at least once.

In some instances, attorneys have been targeted by hired hit men, according to the study that appears in the latest issue of the Michigan Bar Journal.

Last year, former Traverse City lawyer Clarence Gomery was sentenced to six to 20 years in prison for offering to pay $22,000 for the murder of a rival lawyer, Christopher Cooke. The would-be hit man reported the offer to authorities, and no attack took place.

Gomery pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder and is imprisoned at Ojibway Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, according to the Department of Corrections.

Stephen Kelson, the Salt Lake City, Utah, lawyer who conducted the Michigan survey, said in the study, “Many Michigan attorneys have experienced a range of work-related threats and violence, and it should not be assumed that similar threats and violence against attorneys are random or can only happen somewhere else to someone else.

“The reality is that work-related violence and threats of violence can come from any side of a given case and can occur beyond the courthouse and office, regardless of one’s practice area,” he wrote.

Kelson has followed the issue since working on a law school project in 1999, and the survey is part of his nationwide effort to discover the scope of the problem and ways to reduce such incidents.

The two largest categories of victims are lawyers who practice criminal or family law.

The reason, Kelson said in an interview: “When you talk about people in conflict, emotions run highest when it’s a matter of life, liberty or property. They lose control.”

But the study noted attorneys in fields such as corporate, real estate and probate law also acknowledged threats and violence.

“They are less dangerous — it just doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” Kelson said.

Judges also are at risk.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg was shot in 2015 during an armed robbery outside his Detroit home. In 1988, Grand Rapids District Judge Carol Irons was fatally shot in her chambers by her estranged husband, an off-duty police officer.

Not surprisingly, most violent incidents occurred in law offices and courthouses.

For example, a litigant “handed me a bullet while in court and said he had another with my name on it,” one survey participant reported. Another was sitting in a law office “when someone attempted to shoot me from across the street with a hunting rifle.”

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said a criminal defendant tried to attack an assistant state attorney general outside the courthouse in Traverse City. A police officer foiled the assault. The victim, who was temporarily assigned to prosecute domestic violence cases, was unhurt.

“It was very serious,” Cooney said. “Somebody could have been killed.”

Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz described a series of incidents that happened to him while handling cases in several counties, including being punched in the face by a witness.

Another time, while handling drug cases, he was under surveillance by the girlfriend of a defendant “because they wanted to take me out,” said Fitz, a past president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. “I obviously changed my pattern of coming and going and made sure I had my gun with me when I came and went.”

In another case, the State Police intercepted a letter from a prisoner trying to hire a hit man to kill Fitz, whose prosecution led to a 10-to-15-year sentence.

And in Oakland County, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton said a defendant tried to spit on a member of his staff in a courtroom.

The State Court Administrative Office, which oversees administrative matters for the judicial system, has not seen any trends of attacks on attorneys or related items to be concerned about, according to John Nevin, the communications director for the Michigan Supreme Court.

However, Fitz said, “Many smaller courthouses don’t have sufficient security,” often for financial reasons.

Other incidents have taken place at shopping malls, in bars and restaurants and on roadways, the study said.

For instance, in 2014, Bloomfield Hills lawyer David Zacks was shot at his front door by a man who pretended to be a police officer. Zacks survived.

Three suspects were convicted of a combination of armed robbery, conspiracy, weapons and home invasion charges and sentenced to terms of 17 to 50 years, 30 to 60 years and 15 to 40 years, Oakland County’s Walton said. A fourth, who cooperated with authorities, received a one-year jail term and was ordered to pay $35,000 restitution.

The study quoted a Michigan lawyer as saying, “My car was blown up in front of my home.”

Another lawyer described being followed for more than 60 miles on Interstate 75, with the chaser “speeding up, passing me, getting in front of me and slowing down.”

Still another reported a dead deer and other gutted animals thrown onto the driveway of his home.

The report said lawyers have also been targets of vandalism and property damage. In one such incident, Walton said his car was scratched deeply with a key because of a case he was prosecuting. Only about one-third of victims said they had complained to police.

Kelson said some measures can be taken to reduce or prevent incidents, such as heightened security, including a ban on firearms at courthouses and screening visitors when they arrive at law offices.

However, he cautioned, “You can’t make everything foolproof,” citing a 2014 incident at the first trial that took place in a new federal courthouse with “top-of-the-line security measures” in Salt Lake City. A U.S. deputy marshal fatally shot the defendant, a suspected gang member accused of racketeering, who had lunged at a witness with a pen.

The new study is based on responses from 4,219 of the 35,824 lawyers who practice in Michigan.

The results of the Michigan study are in line with statewide surveys that Kelson has conducted since 2006 in 21 other states where from 32.5 percent (North Carolina) to 46.5 percent (North Dakota) of lawyers reported being targets of threats or violence. Michigan’s 36.2 percent rate ranks 19th among the 22 states surveyed.

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