Lawyers are used to threats, not violence — but slaying, other cases have put some on edge

ST. PAUL -- Earlier this month, police say, a client walked into his lawyer's Cathedral Hill office and shot a 23-year-old clerk. As St. Paul reels from Chase Passauer's death, similar threats and attacks have put many in the legal community on n...

ST. PAUL - Earlier this month, police say, a client walked into his lawyer’s Cathedral Hill office and shot a 23-year-old clerk. As St. Paul reels from Chase Passauer’s death, similar threats and attacks have put many in the legal community on notice.

Attorneys are regularly threatened and verbally abused, often by their own clients. It comes with the job, they say. While cases rarely escalate to violence, a few recent incidents have left some on edge.
“People are at their worst when they go to see an attorney. Whatever it is, they’re at a point where they’re in a conflict that they don’t know how to handle or can’t handle,” said Stephen Kelson, a lawyer from Utah who studies violence against the profession. “The attorneys end up being an outlet.”
Survey-based studies of 22 states, conducted by Kelson the past 10 years, show between 35.5 percent and
46.5 percent of registered attorneys have been threatened or assaulted. Minnesota has not been the subject of a study, though Kelson said he approached the state’s Bar Association about one last year.
Threats mentioned in the studies include stalking, phone calls, letters, emails, texts, online posts, verbal threats of violence or death and attempts to hire hitmen to kill lawyers. Acts of violence ranged from vandalism and tampering with vehicles to assaults.
Those in family or criminal law are at the highest risk, but threats and violence can even affect lawyers in “safe” fields, like commercial real estate or wills and estates, Kelson said.

‘If your brain is broken, what do you do?’
Ramsey County public defender Susan Scarborough was filling in for a co-worker last July when the client, a teenage girl, began to argue with her father. As the girl grew angrier, her voice rose to a scream, Scarborough recalled. The girl’s father and the translator left the conference room, leaving Scarborough in a far corner.
The girl began beating Scarborough, knocking her unconscious. A probation officer was finally able to restrain the girl, and Scarborough was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury.
Nine months later, Scarborough can’t read, because her eyes won’t focus properly. She suffers from short-term memory loss, which she calls “Teflon brain,” because “nothing sticks.” Scarborough’s in physical, occupational and speech therapy and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to work again.
“If you’re someone who plays the piano and you break your hand, I don’t know what you’d do,” Scarborough said. “I made a living with my memory and my eyesight, and I don’t have them anymore. If you made a living with your brain, and your brain is broken, what do you do?”

Violent attacks remain rare
Three months after that attack, another Ramsey County public defender was targeted by a client, this time in open court. The client landed a glancing blow on Richard Sarette before court security tackled him, said chief Ramsey County public defender Pat Kittridge.
Despite the recent attacks on lawyers in his department, Kittridge said, such incidents remain rare. He couldn’t think of any others in the past 30 years.
The most recent assault Hennepin County chief defender Mary Moriarty could recall was a decade ago, when a juvenile punched a lawyer in the face.
“These things don’t happen that often. We are not afraid of our clients, we simply aren’t,” Moriarty said.
Within the past four years, three people attacked their lawyers so viciously that it was decided they had forfeited their right to an attorney, said Minnesota State Public Defender William Ward.
Such extreme cases are “exceedingly rare,” as Minnesota’s criminal justice system handles about 140,000 cases a year, Ward said.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but if we get to that point, there has to be a mechanism in place to protect the staff,” Ward said. “I don’t want our lawyers to be punching bags for folks who were agitated and mad.”
There have been several other high-profile attacks and threats on lawyers in Minnesota in recent years, including:

  • In 2014, an Edina man who served time for sexual assault went to the home of the prosecutor in his case. The prosecutor wasn’t there when Thomas Wayne Evenstad arrived, but his family was. Evenstad also harassed his defense attorney, several judges and law enforcement.
  • In 2011, a man convicted of sexual assault retrieved a gun from his car and opened fire in the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais, injuring three people, including the prosecutor and a witness.
  • In 2010, a St. Paul man stabbed his ex-wife’s attorney several times in the face, throat and chest after walking into her Fridley offices. He was upset about losing custody of his child.
  • In 2003, a woman murdered her cousin and injured the victim’s attorney in the Hennepin County Government Center. The shootings were prompted by a family estate dispute.

According to Kelson’s state surveys, acts of violence or intimidation against lawyers are most likely to occur at courthouses or in the lawyer’s offices, but respondents were also targeted while traveling, in jails or prisons, and at their homes.
Some threats go unreported
Assaults are usually reported and prosecuted, but lawyers report threats less frequently, Kelson said.
Most of the time, it’s because lawyers don’t feel threatened. But in some states, a failure to report more serious remarks is rooted in distrust of law enforcement. Other times, lawyers don’t want to look like they “couldn’t take it,” he said.
“I think sometimes people develop thicker skins,” said Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling to attorneys. “But it’s difficult for lawyers to admit any vulnerability. There’s a stigma against letting people know something gets to you.”
Part of this has to do with the inherently combative nature of law, she said. There are two sides represented by two attorneys, and no one wants a perceived personal weakness to impact his case.
But there’s also limited public sympathy for lawyers, she said.
While most lawyers view threats as a reflection of their aggressor’s frustration with the system, many are concerned about an increasing number of people with mental health problems in a criminal justice system ill-equipped to fully assist them.
“We have more and more clients suffering from mental health issues and an extreme lack of resources to help them,” Moriarty said. “Our clients are frustrated. Anyone would be, especially those who are in jail, locked up away from their family, loved ones and jobs. It’s a pretty scary circumstance, and our staff understands that.”
Some Minnesota courts, including those in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, have begun offering training in crisis intervention and how to work with people who have mental illnesses.
Such training isn’t common for lawyers but is important in preventing aggression instead of provoking it, Kelson said.
The suspect in the Cathedral Hill shooting, Ryan David Petersen, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. He is being held in jail in lieu of $1.5 million bail. Passauer’s funeral was Friday.
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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