Judge forces action on courtroom security

December 13, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

Boyle County Sheriff LeeRoy Hardin used to worry that he wasn't doing enough to keep the courthouse secure. The grace of God was the only thing that had prevented his home turf from being the scene of some grisly shooting spree or bomb blast, he said.

Now, in the wake of last week's thwarted plot to allegedly gun down a family court judge, an attorney and a woman involved in a volatile divorce case, Hardin has a new set of concerns.

Boyle Circuit Judge Darren Peckler has ordered Hardin to beef up security outside the circuit, district and family courtrooms by placing deputies with hand-held, metal-detecting wands to screen people as they enter.

The sheriff has no quibble with the judge's order - he knows it's long overdue. It's just that it stretches his already overburdened staff so thin it scares him.


What if, Hardin worries, his deputies are busy guarding the courthouse and can't respond to a tense situation out in the county? What if that situation ends in violence that might have been averted if deputies arrived earlier? What if deputies can't check out a call about a drunk driver and that driver crashes into a school bus? What if a deputy goes it alone into a heated confrontation and is hurt because no backup is available. The "what ifs" are endless.

"They've put me in a situation where I just can't win," Hardin said Thursday as he was working wand detail outside Circuit Court. "I had problems before, but this makes it all the worse. There's no way, no way, I can handle it all.

"If there's a bad situation out in the county, I'll respond to the call. We're going to leave the court and go. I'll deal with the judge when I get back. If he wants to write me up for contempt, so be it. My main concern is protecting the people of this county."

Cornett arrest forces issue

Last week's arrest of Ronnie Gay Cornett on three counts of attempt to commit murder has forced officials to address what everyone agrees has been a lax security system at the courthouse, where virtually anyone could walk into a courtroom or office without being screened.

Kentucky State Police say they received a tip that Cornett was planning to shoot his ex-wife, her attorney and Family Court Judge Bruce Petrie during a court hearing on Dec. 2. Though police arrested Cornett before he carried out his alleged plot, they did recover two loaded weapons and believe that they prevented a major tragedy from occurring.

Cornett, 56, of Sea Biscuit Drive, pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.

"I don't want to say we've been derelict, but maybe that's the right word. We've always said it was someone else's job, someone else's responsibility, but with this, it was 'Boys, wake up. You have a problem,'" Peckler said. "I met with the judges, and we decided that if we're not going to take this seriously, no one will. We're not going to pass the buck any more. We don't need people to come into the courthouse in fear. If people want to yell, they can yell at me. This is something that is long overdue."

Peckler said he has the authority, by statute, to require Hardin to provide adequate courthouse security, and his order to post deputies outside courtrooms will remain in place until other steps are taken to make the building safe. On Monday, Peckler said he will issue a similar order at the Mercer County Courthouse.

While Peckler said he is sorry for the extra burden his orders place on the sheriffs' departments, the pressure is necessary to force local and state authorities to address the long-neglected issue. And that will take money, the judge said.

"It's always 'not enough money,'" he said. "But we're not in the money business. We have no control over our funding. The people who are in charge of funding have to address this. I can't go out and have a bake sale to raise money, but I do know I have an obligation to keep the people using my courtroom as safe as possible."

Courthouse security is shared

The burden for courthouse security is shared by the county and the state Administrative Office of the Courts, with the ultimate responsibility going to the sheriff's department. Hardin said he will take his concerns to Tuesday's Boyle Fiscal Court meeting and plead for more money to hire additional courtroom bailiffs so he can keep his six road deputies free to respond to calls in the county, transport prisoners and serve court papers.

"Something will have to be let go," Hardin said.

But Boyle County is already spending more money than it is taking in and using its surplus to pay bills. Judge-Executive Tony Wilder is pushing for an occupational tax increase to fund the county's budget shortfall, and many of Hardin's previous pleas for more funding have gone unanswered.

"Judge Peckler did what he had to do, but it creates a real challenge for us. We're going through an extreme situation with our budget right now," Wilder said.

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