Lee County Courthouse security may need tightening - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Lee County Courthouse security may need tightening

By Jennifer Emert - bio | email

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Because of previous problems between the two families in that case, there is extra security at the Lee County Courthouse for Craig Johnson's murder trial, but that's not the case every day.

In fact on days where there isn't court, there's virtually no security at all. Courthouse workers from judges to clerks say it makes them uneasy. There is a Sheriff's office at the Lee County Courthouse, when court's in session three deputies man it, but when court isn't in session those deputies are out serving papers and there's only one deputy left to man what's now two buildings full of court offices. It's something the Sheriff wants to change, but commissioners see it differently.

When a screaming match began between Craig Johnson's family and Nicole Judge's relatives before jury selection even began it was easy to see why the Sheriff's office added extra deputies for this trial.

"We broke things up pretty quick this morning. It could have gotten worse than it was this morning. It was intense there for a few minutes, but it didn't last very long," said Lee County Sheriff Reggie Rachals.

While metal detectors and wands kept courthouse personnel safe, it's not the case everyday and has drawn concern from the staff.

"We're vulnerable in this building other than court days, a court day like today with a high profile case we've got plenty of security, but when court is not in session we're absolutely wide open," said Lee County Probate Judge John Wheaton.

Sheriff Reggie Rachals considered adding a system in each office that could alert deputies if there's trouble and proposed using part time staff to guard the building when court's not in session, but he says money's tight.

"With the budget crunch like it is and money's tight and they couldn't do it right at this point in time. I think they're trying to look into it and take other steps to help me get the security that I need up here during the week not just on high profile days," said Rachals.

Judge Wheaton says the dangers are real, recalling a recent confrontation with a defendant in his office.

"He threatened an attorney that was in the office here in the office on that particular day. That drew great concern and I found out a couple of days later he actually attacked a citizen of this county," said Wheaton.

In 25 years he's seen a great change in caseloads, in the attitude of the people the court deals with, and he hopes soon a change in the security procedures.

Commissioner Rick Muggridge said the Sheriff's office received the largest budget increase in the latest budget and didn't see personnel cuts through attrition that other offices have seen. He said it's up to the Sheriff to spend the money he's allotted and if he wants to shift more money to courthouse security, he'll have to make adjustments elsewhere.

County Administrator Alan Ours proposed a millage increase in 2007 that would have raised extra money for courthouse security, but commissioners were adamant about not raising taxes.

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