The men and women who prosecute criminals are those who seek justice and dedicate their careers to convicting the guilty and keeping society safe. Their jobs, however, can carry serious risks. They are the people criminals often blame for their convictions and a grudge can have dangerous consequences.
In 1986, in San Rafael, California 72-year-old Malcolm Schlette walked into the private law offices of William O. Weissich wearing a “black raincoat and black hat” and pulled out a .45 calibre pistol fitted with a silencer. William Weissich recognized the face who stood before him with a gun but had no chance to flee or defend himself before the fatal shots were fired. Schlette left the scene and returned to his van where police surrounded him. As part of a clearly thought out plan, Malcolm Schlette stepped out of his van and swallowed what police believe was poison before collapsing to the ground and dying where he lay.
Malcolm Schlette had cold-bloodedly murdered William O. Weissich, a past District Attorney for Marin County Municipal Court described as “fearless, hard-hitting and relentless” and a man who had been in successful private practice for 26 years thereafter.
Weissich had prosecuted Schlette in 1955 on arson charges, 31 years before Schlette shot him dead. Sentenced to up to 20 years in prison as a result, Schlette made it clear he wanted revenge on the man who convicted him. He was released on parole in 1966, however, he was sent back to jail for a further nine years after violating his parole conditions. It was widely known that Schlette had a vendetta against Weissich and he had made continued threats to kill him. Despite this, he was released again on parole in March 1975. After the murder, 11 years later, a handwritten note was discovered in Schlette’s home. This note contained the names of five individuals he vowed to take revenge upon for being those responsible for sending him to prison. One of those names was William O. Weissich.
For some individuals, they feel actions are needed to exact revenge on those perceived to have wronged them and, in their eyes, prevented them from living their lives. In the case of Schlette, he held a deadly grudge for over 30 years, blaming the prosecutor for his imprisonment and the resulting loss of his freedom. No responsibility for his own actions was taken, no acceptance that the sentences he was given were due to his own criminal acts, and refusal to abide by the rules laid upon him as part of his punishment. Instead, his anger was firmly directed at the prosecutor who no doubt painted a picture of him he was not happy with and convinced the court he was guilty and should be convicted.
“They’re not out on the street at 2 a.m. confronting people who are intoxicated, armed and violent. So when a prosecutor is killed, they are almost always premeditated attacks, which kind of raises the level of egregiousness.”
In July 1992, former lawyer 45-year-old George Lott, who held a grudge after losing a child custody battle with his ex-wife at the Tarrant County Courthouse in Texas in 1988, opened fire inside the same courthouse, killing two lawyers and wounding three others. Lott fired up to 17 shots around the courthouse before he fled the building, making his way to a Dallas television station where he announced what he had just done and said he wanted to explain why. Lott was not part of the proceedings in the appellate court that day when he opened fire.
After entering the building and concealing his gun, he sat in the spectator area, the New York Times reported in 1992, before he “suddenly stood and began firing at the three judges on the bench.” Lott claimed he was not targeting any particular judge during his killing spree, he said he simply wanted to open fire and draw attention to the injustice of the loss of custody of his son at the same courthouse four years earlier.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Marshall, 41, was killed in the attack and civil trial lawyer John Edwards was shot and killed in the stairwell of the courthouse as Lott fled the scene. Two judges were wounded in the shooting, Judge John Hill and Judge Clyde Ashworth, both judges who served in the appellate court. The third person wounded was 28-year-old Assistant Attorney Steven Conder. In September 1994, 18 months after the shootings, George Lott was executed by lethal injection.
“The people most hell-bent on revenge were both low in forgiveness and high in narcissistic traits,” wrote research-based science writer Peg Streep on Psychology Today on the results of a research study, examining the relationship between lack of forgiveness and vengefulness. “Individuals high in neuroticism and who experienced continued anger and hostility were still inclined to seek revenge two-and-a-half years after the original transgression,” she highlighted, referencing a longitudinal research study which revealed that managing anger and negative emotions is often at the core of revenge-seeking, along with holding the desire to act on these emotions even years after the fact that triggered them in the first place.
While in most cases where an attorney is murdered in connection with their job a disgruntled revenge-seeking client is at the centre, there are some cases where murder is used as an act of prevention, a last-ditch attempt in the mind of a criminal to avoid paying the price for their criminal actions. If the prosecuting attorney is no longer alive to prosecute, in their twisted logic they will remain free and unpunished.
In 1995, Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Paul R. McLaughlin was murdered the night before he was due to prosecute a known gang leader Jeffrey Bly. The Boston Globe reported on the case on the 20th anniversary of his death. “Paul McLaughlin was a good and decent man who believed in the work for which he ultimately gave his life,” a colleague of McLaughlin, Daniel Conley, told a memorial service held for McLaughlin on 24 September 2015.
Paul McLaughlin was a prosecutor with the remit of fighting the growing problem of gangs in Boston. He was due to prosecute Jeffrey Bly for a carjacking offence in the Suffolk Superior Court on 26 September 1995. Bly decided to kill McLaughlin to avoid going to prison.
The night before, Bly walked up to McLaughlin who was in his car and shot him in the head, ensuring he would not survive. Four years later, Jeffrey Bly was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. A brutal crime he committed to side-step prison, sent him straight to the place he was trying to avoid. A commitment to instead of facing the consequences of his actions he would simply remove the threat to him, that threat was Paul McLaughlin.
“Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions. At its worst, it expresses a hot, overwhelming desire for bloodshed,” writes clinical psychologist, Dr. Leon F Seltzer.
“The motive of revenge has mostly to do with expressing rage, hatred, or spite. It’s a protest, or payback, and its foremost intent is to harm.”
In these cases, payback and self-protection were the motives behind these crimes. Crimes that took the lives of serving prosecutors with many years of accomplished practice behind them. They were killed for simply doing their job, by individuals who perceived their official duties as doing them wrong, making it personal and setting them on a road to murder.
On the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia stands a Prosecutors Memorial which lists the names of prosecutors who have been murdered. The list currently holds 14 names representing the number killed in the last 100 years. In comparison to the numbers of serving police officers killed in the line of duty, this number is very low, highlighting how rare such cases are. In fact of those 14 names, the National District Attorney’s Association who maintain the memorial highlights at least eight were murdered in connection with their job while others were murdered in what is believed to have been random acts of violence.
“It takes courage and determination to continue to seek justice and do the job of a prosecutor in the face of attack,” said former National District Attorney’s Associate president Dan. M. Alsobrooks. “Whether it is a direct assault or homicide, threat, verbal assault or just intimidation, prosecutors continue to be at risk,” he continued, “Thankfully, only a few have given the ultimate sacrifice.”