By JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — After two Texas prosecutors were slain in two months, law enforcement agencies across the state are considering steps to better protect attorneys who go after violent criminals, including providing round-the-clock security details and withholding personal information from public records.
Last weekend's fatal shootings of the Kaufman County district attorney and his wife in their home were so alarming that county officials assigned a 24-hour security detail to the interim prosecutor who took over the job. Another prosecutor in the state's Panhandle region encouraged his staff to request that property records not list their home addresses.
But current and former prosecutors acknowledge that nothing will ever entirely eliminate the inherent risk of confronting society's most dangerous offenders in the courtroom.
Former Houston prosecutor Clay Rawlings received a death threat in 1984 from a tattoo-covered 19-year-old charged with murder in a fatal stabbing. The experience, he said, motivated him "to make damn sure that guy is never getting out."
Rawlings, now a personal-injury lawyer, said the threat made him realize two things: that "this guy was dangerous" but also that "I've got to do my job."
The teen was sentenced to life in prison.
Authorities continue investigating the deaths of Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, who were found shot to death Saturday just outside the town of Forney, about 20 miles from Dallas.
Investigators have said little about the case and have not named any suspects. Speculation about possible culprits has swirled around a white supremacist prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which had been targeted by a task force that included McLelland's office. Mexican drug cartels have also raised suspicions.
The slayings were especially jarring because they happened just two months after one of the county's assistant district attorneys, Mark Hasse, was killed near the courthouse.
Law enforcement figures were also targeted in at least two other states. Colorado's prison chief was shot to death March 21 at his front door, apparently by a white supremacist ex-convict who died in a shootout with deputies after fleeing to Texas. And on Wednesday, a West Virginia sheriff known for cracking down on the drug trade was fatally shot in the place where he usually parked his car for lunch.
Since McLelland's death, district attorneys' offices and other law enforcement agencies across the state have been beefing up security or reviewing their procedures.
McLelland's replacement, interim District Attorney Brandi Fernandez, has been given 24-hour protection. In Harris County, which includes Houston, District Attorney Mike Anderson and his family also have round-the-clock security from the sheriff's office. Officials say the continued use of personal protection will be re-evaluated as the investigation progresses.
Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor in South Texas said his department is not changing how it handles threats to its officers.
"Whenever there is a threat to an officer, at least in our community, I am very, very aggressive in the pursuit of those threats ... because if we are complacent about it, then God save us and our communities," he said.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said if a prosecutor were "spooked enough" by a threat, that person could choose to be removed from the case.
In Houston, federal prosecutor Jay Hileman informed defense attorneys Tuesday that he was withdrawing from a case involving the Aryan Brotherhood because of "security reasons," said Richard Ely, a defense attorney who represents one of the gang members who has pleaded guilty. The indictments were the result of the task force's work.
Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Houston, declined to comment about Hileman, saying only that the Justice Department would continue pursuing the case. A legal notice announcing the change did not list a reason.
Providing extra security for prosecutors might stretch local and state budgets, but financial concerns were unlikely to affect the effort.
"I don't think there is ever going to be a time where the security of law enforcement officers is lessened due to budget worries," said Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston.