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Assault on Prosecutors Raises Question of Better Protection

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- A sudden assault of two assistant county attorneys in Story County has the county attorney there, and others, thinking about stiffer legal penalties.

Major Louis Robinson II, 31, Mason City was charged with two counts of willful injury and two counts of assault causing bodily injury for the attack that happened Tuesday night in Nevada. The security camera video released by Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes showed Robinson approaching a group of prosecutors in a hallway. He asked for one person by name and when that person answered he allegedly started swinging. Another assistant county attorney was also struck when he tried to break up the fight. Two prosecutors were only shaken up, but one had a pair of broken glasses.

Holmes said Iowa law currently treats a simple assault against prosecutors, judges and other court officials the same as an assault against anyone else. It's usually some form of misdemeanor. However, the same kind of assault of a police office, firefighter, correctional staffer and even a member of the board of parole, while on official duty, can be a class D felony. That's a prison sentence of up to five years.

The scariest moment in eastern Iowa for a prosecutor was probably January of 2002. Now retired Linn County Attorney Harold Denton was knifed in the back by a homeless man. The injuries were minor and the attacker went to prison. Denton said no one ever learned if he was attacked for any reason connected to his job as a prosecutor.

But Denton, when he heard of the Story County incident on Friday, said maybe it is time to consider better protection for prosecutors.

"That's the sort of thing that needs to be answered with an enhanced penalty because it's an attack on a representative of the justice system," Denton said.

Current Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said judges, attorneys and anyone who's spent time working in a courthouse probably has a story about someone who made them uneasy—of perhaps even made an actual threat.

But he's not so sure the answer is to add prosecutors to the list of officials protected by enhanced penalties if assaulted. He wonders if the stiffer penalties should apply to violence done inside a courthouse against either court workers or the public.

"People who work in the clerk's office, court administration—they face the same kind of volatile people we do in court," Vander Sanden said adding "members of the general public should feel safe here, they shouldn't feel like they have to watch themselves or watch their back."

The attack on then assistant county attorney Denton in 2002 did have an immediate impact on courthouse security. Within six months, Linn County deputies began manning a checkpoint at the courthouse entrance that includes metal detectors and other scanning devices.

Vander Sanden believes the system would stop anyone from bringing a weapon into the courthouse. But as Story County prosecutors discovered this week, metal detectors can't stop someone willing to use their fists.