Indianapolis Star

Security Fears Renew Call to Move Courts

March 22, 2005
By Kevin O'Neal
Indianapolis Star

Think a fatal courtroom shooting couldn't happen in Indianapolis? It already has, back in 1975.

And starting almost as long ago, there have been recommendations to move Marion County courts out of the City-County Building to a new facility that would provide more space and security. The cost of a new building has stopped all attempts, but the Indianapolis Bar Association is still calling for that change, citing decades of studies.

"All of these studies show that there are dangerous inefficiencies in the system, dangerous courthouse security issues in the system, that need to be addressed, and every one of these studies has said, without fail, that the only feasible long-term solution is a new justice center facility," said John Kautzman, president of the Indianapolis Bar Association.

Monday, the association asked the county's Criminal Justice Planning Council to start work on plans for a new judicial center. Attorneys cited the fatal courthouse shootings in Atlanta earlier this month as a reason for a new building; the current system of moving prisoners through the City-County Building cannot be made secure, they said.

Cost, however, remains the main obstacle -- anywhere from $95 million to $195 million, according to the bar association's estimates. The bar association suggested the building could be funded by higher court fees and property tax rates and tax money taken from new Downtown developments. Also, the association figures there will be some savings from a new judicial center, as prisoners could be handled by fewer sheriff's deputies.

Two planning council members from opposing political parties told bar association representatives that they're not likely to get their way anytime soon.

"A major bricks-and-mortar effort like this would consume all the new resources that we've just produced," said Mayor Bart Peterson, referring to the money expected from a recently approved increase in the county income tax. That extra money will be used to help stop the early release of inmates from the Marion County Jail.

The bar association said a new judicial building could be a major part of the effort to limit early releases. The county is under a federal court order to limit the inmate population at the jail.

Philip Borst, Republican leader of the City-County Council, cautioned that there is little chance of a judicial center being built in the coming years.

The bar association said 300 prisoners are taken through the City-County Building each day, and most are marched through public corridors -- something the attorneys said is unavoidable in the current building.

The City-County Building was completed in 1964, but what was state of the art then has become cramped and dated.

The shooting on Oct. 20, 1975, occurred in a packed courtroom that included a class of Beech Grove High School students standing behind the judge.

Nathaniel Sanders, then 34, was accused of fatally beating his father-in-law, Harry Thomas, and was making an initial appearance before Judge Frank L. Harlor.

That's when Harriett Roberta Jones, then 30, pulled a revolver from her handbag and shot Sanders in the back. Sanders was declared dead one hour later at Wishard Memorial Hospital.

Jones was Thomas' daughter and Sanders' sister-in-law. She pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years' probation.

That shooting sparked no major security changes.

The bar association funded a one-month test of airport-style metal detectors in August 2001, but there was little interest in keeping the checkpoints.

Then came the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the security checkpoints returned -- permanently.

In the past month, the entrances to the building's underground parking garage have been rebuilt to add remote-controlled barriers.