Thursday, March 29, 2007

Judge whips it out in the courtroom.

From News For Jacksonville, Florida:

A pistol-packing judge made no apologies on Tuesday after pulling out a gun when a scuffle broke out in the middle of court proceedings.

Circuit Judge John Merrett said Friday began as just another normal day in courtroom two of the Duval County Courthouse until the father of an alleged child molestation victim decided to take the law into his own hands. He was there for a plea bargain hearing involving defendant 21-year-old Derrick McNeil, who has been charged with molesting a child.

However, in the middle of the hearing there was sudden chaos.

Merrett said he took out his gun when a brawl broke out near the bench. He said he never put his finger on the trigger or pointed the gun at anyone. He said he wanted to be prepared in case the fight between a child's father and a handcuffed defendant escalated.

"I had no idea what was going on," Merritt said. "I had just spoken to the father. I had just asked him if the plea agreement that the state had reached with the defendant was agreeable to him and he said yes, and I looked down and I see a blur and then there's all this going down there on the floor." He said the father was attacking the defendant. Bailiffs went to break up the fight, while the judge took action of his own.

"Since I didn't know what was going on or who was at risk, I thought it prudent to get my safety device out," Merrett said.

That safety device to which Merrett referred was his handgun. The judge said he kept it at his side and gave it to a clerk to lock up once the situation was under control. A police report said the father landed several punches and threatened to kill McNiel. It took five bailiffs to restore order. The reason Merritt said he became so concerned was that when the father of the victim jumped over the benches he ran and tackled the defendant in an area where the he couldn't see what was going on.

"Anytime someone's running towards the bench in a courtroom … it indicates they've had an emotional break of some sort," Merrett said.

Merret met with the father in his chambers and later ordered him released without bail, even though he was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. Although Merrett, who has a license to carry a concealed weapon, and did not commit a crime, at least one attorney has called for a change in the rules that allows judges to carry firearms in the courthouse after what he said was a scary, real-life courtroom drama.

Duval County Public Defender Bill White questioned the safety of allowing judges to carry guns. He said he plans to talk to the chief judge about disarming the judges. However, several people at the courthouse on Friday told Channel 4 they believe judges should continue to be allowed to carry guns. "There's a lot of crazy people out there and crazy people are going to have guns, so why shouldn't judges have them? They are there because they are defenders of the law," said Arwen Bosico. "You never know who's going to show up in a courtroom and what they're going to do when they get there, so I believe it'd be OK," Len Taliferro said.

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