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Bomb threat underscores security

By Ed Brock

Margarine Harris was doing her civic duty as a juror in Clayton County this week when she saw a group of lawyers saying there was a bomb in the building.

"Otherwise we never would have known," said the 62-year-old woman on Wednesday as she waited in sweltering heat in front of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro.

Around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday someone called the office of Clayton County Superior Court Judge Stephen Boswell and said there was a bomb in the building. Employees, jurors and attorneys began filing out of the building. Some of them, like Harris and her fellow juror, 47-year-old Jerome Dean of Riverdale, said the evacuation was not exactly orderly.

"They need to have more of an evacuation plan. They had people going all over the place," Dean said. "In light of what happened in Atlanta they need to work on that."

The bomb threat was fake, nothing was found.

On March 11 rape suspect Brian Nichols made a break from the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta. During that escape, according to police, Nichols shot and killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, his secretary and a deputy. Nichols is also charged with killing a federal agent in Buckhead before he was finally captured.

Since that incident courthouse security has been an issue in Clayton and Henry counties and around the nation. In Clayton County certain changes were made, one being that Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill began allowing uniformed police officers to retain their guns while they are in the courthouse.

Also, the county police department issued guns to some judges at the courthouse.

Hill said Wednesday's evacuation was done in an orderly fashion, but only after his deputies took charge of it. His office wasn't informed of the bomb threat until some 30 minutes after the initial call, Hill said, but an employee with the judge's office began telling people to evacuate the building on their own.

"If they had notified us in the beginning, and we had been controlling it in the beginning, it wouldn't have been disorganized," Hill said.

Security procedures are changing at the Henry County Courthouse in McDonough as well, said Superior Court Judge Arch McGarity.

"We have some improvements that have not been put in place but will be put in place," McGarity said.

Shortly after the story broke last month about Clayton County judges carrying guns, McGarity appeared on a national talk show to speak about the fact that he, too, carries a gun.

"I had been carrying a weapon about six years now that had been issued to me by the Henry County Sheriff's Office," McGarity said.

Previously he had kept the gun in his desk in his chamber, only carrying it to his car and home, but since the Atlanta courthouse shootings he's been bringing it to the bench as well.

Other procedures in place or about to be in place include keeping the door to his chambers locked at all times with access granted only to those who have a pass code.

"That's one thing that will make a big difference," McGarity said.

Also, the Henry County Sheriff's Office has increased staffing at the metal detectors at both entrances to the courthouse so that they will be staffed at all times, not just during court times.