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Expert: Recent Attacks On Justice Community 'Really Unprecedented'

The home of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland is surrounded by police tape in Forney, Texas, on Monday. Authorities launched a massive investigation into the weekend killings of McLelland and his wife.
Tim Sharp
The home of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland is surrounded by police tape in Forney, Texas, on Monday. Authorities launched a massive investigation into the weekend killings of McLelland and his wife.

Two county prosecutors fatally shot in Texas. Colorado's top prison official gunned down. And a dozen more members of the U.S. justice community -- ranging from police to judges -- victims of targeted killings since the beginning of the decade.

What's going on?

After the killings of Kaufman County, Texas, District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, whose bodies were found in their home Saturday, we turned to Glenn McGovern for some context.


McGovern has been compiling statistics on such attacks for years. He's the author of the book Targeted Violence as well as the recently published study "Murdered Justice: An Exploratory Study of Targeted Attacks on the Justice Community."

McGovern, a former SWAT officer, spoke with us from Santa Clara County, Calif., where he works for the district attorney's office as an expert in threat, risk and vulnerability assessments.

There's not a lot of information on targeted attacks on members of the justice community, which includes prosecutors, McGovern said, at least not a lot that isn't classified.

"I just started researching, and it just grew from there," he said of his efforts to put the attacks into statistical context.

Before we jump into our question-and-answer session with McGovern, here is some of what he said he learned reviewing the 133 "individual hostile events" he found that targeted the justice community in the U.S. between Jan. 1, 1950, and Dec. 31, 2012.


-- The targeted victims were killed in 41 of the events.

-- Revenge was the motive of 67 percent of the attacks, and guns the preferred weapon.

-- The attacks almost equally targeted judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, but judges were more frequently the victims of fatal attacks.

-- Just over half of the attacks occurred at the victim's home, usually on a weekday and generally in the late summer or early fall.

-- More than 80 percent of offenders were facing charges at the time, more than half were males in their 20s and 30s, and 57 percent of them were white.

Here's Glenn McGovern, whose lengthier comments were edited and condensed for this Q-and-A:

Q: Are such attacks on members of the criminal justice community in North America on the rise?

"They really are. In 2008, there was a huge spike, and that's really when the attacks in Mexico took off. And they were reaching close to 100 a year. And then it kind of dropped down a little bit. And so now you're starting to see a spike in the United States. And when I was going through the numbers last night, it is really unprecedented."

Q: What are your numbers telling you about the extent of the increase of these kinds of attacks, specifically in the U.S.?

"I went back through my statistics, and at this time in the 1970s, a little over 3 1/2 years into that decade, there had been four attacks. In the '80s, two; '90s, six; the 2000s, six. Right now, we are at 15. Fifteen in the first three years and three months of this decade. The part that I find unnerving as a law enforcement officer is this: Are we [the U.S.] the next spike in the overall trend? And the problem is, there's no one group that we can focus in on."

Q: When -- and why -- did the attacks start to increase?

"That is a tough question, and there's really no solid answer. When you look at previous spikes, you could relate it directly to the cartels -- maybe not one specifically, but, overall, it was their violence. Here in the U.S., over the last 62 years plus, the individuals behind these attacks, while some have been related to organized crime, really run the gamut from defendants [to] rival[s] -- another police officer, or another judge, vying for a position and deciding that he needs to remove an obstacle."

Q: What do you make of reports out of Texas suggesting that authorities are looking at a possible link between the murders and whitesupremacists?

"To be honest with you, I'll be surprised if it turns out to be a supremacist, white supremacist prison gang, because I have not seen that before. I'm not so certain about Colorado, but the two in Texas to me, whoever's behind it -- they've got some skills. They're not your common criminal who decides, 'I'm gonna hurt or kill a prosecutor or a judge.' This is something different, in my opinion. Far more dangerous."

Q: Why?

"You do a hit, in broad daylight, and nothing? There are barely any witnesses? That takes a lot of guts. To me, that takes some skill, to get away cleanly as well. Just, on the face of it, it shows me that you're dealing with somebody who has some training."

Q: What, to you, is most significant about the two recent murders in Texas?

"I have only seen this type of targeted attack, where you hit two members within a short period of time within the same organization, in attacks in Sicily and Colombia and Mexico. It, to my knowledge, has never happened here in the U.S."

Q: Is there anything different authorities should be doing to prevent these attacks?

"I think Mr. McLelland [Texas district attorney Mike McLelland] said it best. He was doing everything he could. He was carrying a weapon. He was being more sensitive to what was going on around him as he moved around the day. And what was interesting, also, that I heard was that he had had a sheriff's unit parked outside of his house until the first week of March. It really highlights -- you cannot protect every single person indefinitely."

Q: How do investigators begin searching for perpetrators of these types of murders?

"The predominant motivation in the past attacks has been revenge -- usually revenge against being arrested and charged -- and then, to a lesser degree, to derail a case. But generally, all these attacks stem from an individual somewhere within the process. That's where you'd have to begin. But these two [Texas] gentlemen, their careers extend over decades. You know, you're really trying to find a needle in a haystack. It can be overwhelming, trying to figure out what one individual wants to harm your prosecutor or your judge, out of career spanning such a long time."

Q: Do you see any geographic pattern in these crimes?

"Now you've got six members of the justice community murdered, whose crimes remain unsolved. And it's from California to Seattle, Denver and Texas, and also Maryland. They still haven't been able to solve it. Is that because they don't know if it's related to the job, or if it was some random crime, or if somebody knocked on the door? Or was it something else?"

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