Murder highlights safety risks of family law

At least five family law attorneys in U.S. have been killed or violently attacked by clients’ ex-spouses since February 2010

By KAREN SLOAN, National Law Journal

At 9:20 a.m. on June 2, Carey Hal Dyess walked into the converted single-story house that served as Jerrold Shelley’s law office in Yuma, Ariz.

Dyess, 73, instructed an office administrator to move out of the way and then shot and killed the 62-year-old lawyer, who had been in the process of packing up his office and retiring.

The attack wasn’t random. Shelley had represented Dyess’ ex-wife in a bitter divorce in 2006. He was one of five victims of a rampage that lasted six hours and ended only when Dyess turned the gun on himself.

Family law attorneys reacted to the news of Shelley’s death with sadness, but not surprise. At least five family law attorneys have been killed or violently attacked by clients’ ex-spouses since February 2010, and the recent deaths have highlighted the safety risks they face. In addition to Shelley:

• Redmond Coyle, 61, was shot and killed outside his office in Pickens, S.C., on Feb. 3, 2010, in front of his wife and child. His killer was Jerry Crenshaw, the ex-husband of a woman Coyle had represented in divorce proceedings. After shooting Coyle, Crenshaw killed himself.

• Terri Melcher on June 11, 2010, was stabbed nearly 30 times in her law office outside Minneapolis by the ex-husband of a woman she represented in a child custody case. Melcher was able to persuade her attacker to stop the assault and survived. The attacker, Sheikh Nyane, turned himself in to police.

• Judith Soley, 65, was shot and killed on Feb. 16 alongside her client at a restaurant near Fresno, Calif., while on court recess in the client’s divorce. The assailant was the client’s estranged husband, who later killed himself.

• Criminal defense attorney Emmett Corrigan, 30, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Walgreens outside Boise, Idaho, on March 11—one day after he had filed divorce proceedings on behalf of the attacker’s wife, who was one of his employees.

It’s difficult to gauge whether these incidents are on the rise because major legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, don’t track statistics on crimes committed against attorneys because of their work. But family law is seen as a riskier practice than most, because people in the midst of divorce or facing the loss of their children tend to be highly emotional and may direct their anger at their estranged spouse’s lawyer.

“There’s a saying that in criminal court, you have bad people at their best,” said Texas Supreme Court Judge Debra Lehrmann, who spent more than 20 years as a family court judge. “In family law, you get good people at their worst. In criminal court, dangerous people are in handcuffs. In family court, you don’t have any idea who is dangerous.”

Family court judges helped push for improved courthouse security measures after numerous shootings during the past two decades, many of them perpetrated by participants in family law cases, Lehrmann said. But metal detectors and security guards in courthouses can do little to protect attorneys in their homes and offices.

‘Everyone has a story’
“It’s not uncommon,” said Linda Lea Viken, a family law practitioner in Rapid City, S.D., and the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “I’ve talked to women lawyers who have had guns pulled on them. I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers who were threatened. It seems like everyone has a story.”

Viken has had her mailbox smashed and a golf ball sent through her office window; she suspects that both incidents were instigated by estranged husbands of clients. The only time she felt truly frightened for her safety, however, was when a man against whom she had obtained a protection order for a client followed her home from her office one night two years ago.

“We have a security system at our home now,” she said, but many family law attorneys are solo practitioners or work in small offices and don’t have the budget for elaborate security measures.

Todd Scott, vice president of risk management and member services for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., began looking in 2010 for safety advice that he could pass on to his attorney clients and was surprised to find few formal resources. “I would go to these attorney panels and seminars, and almost everywhere I spoke, there was a local story about someone getting attacked or killed, and family law is at the top of the list,” Scott said. “There are some blind spots in our profession, and I think this issue of safety is one of them.”

Viken agreed that colleagues rarely discuss safety openly. “There’s a concern among attorneys that they don’t want to give anyone ideas about doing things and create copycats,” she said. “And for some people, it’s embarrassing when they are threatened or harassed. They think, ‘How did I let this happen?’ I guess it’s not something we talk about, but maybe it should be.”

Scott plans to fill that void with an online seminar in July titled “Safety and Security in the Law Office.” He suspects that lawyer attacks have become more frequent in recent years as more attorneys have hung out their shingle as a result of the hiring slowdown at large firms.

Security consultant Jonathan Lusher has visited law firms with virtually no security beyond a receptionist, he said. He recommends that receptionists receive security training and have a plan in the event that a problem arises. Access to law offices beyond the reception area should be restricted, possibly through a buzzer system, Lusher suggested. Adding impact-resistant glass is another smart move for law offices, and attorneys should communicate with colleagues about their schedules and who is expected in the office, he said.

Last year, the ABA launched its Families Matter initiative, which encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family disputes. “The idea is to reduce the negative impact that the process can have on a family,” Lehrmann said. “The process itself can make a situation more dangerous, so it’s best if you can defuse things before they ever get to that level.”

In Georgia
Two Georgia family lawyers who talked to the Daily Report on Monday said they could not recall severe attacks against their colleagues like those around the country in the past 18 months. But they are aware of the problem.
Tina Shadix Roddenbery of Atlanta’s Holland Roddenbery said she knew of a lawyer who recently had to get a temporary restraining order against the spouse of his client.

She also knows an attorney whom a spouse of a client blames for problems in his life. The spouse “ended up killing one of his wife’s friends and is prison now,” said Roddenbery. “That happened about 20 years ago, and my friend still gets notified whenever he’s up for parole.”

Roddenbery said she is always careful to monitor the behavior of clients and their spouses when they’re meeting face to face.

“Sometimes, I know to be careful because of the particular circumstances, whether it’s from past history or the mental situation somebody may be in,” she said. “I’ve had judges ask me to wait so the bailiff can walk me out. I was at a client’s house where the client played a voice mail left by the spouse that threatened me. I considered withdrawing from the case, but I didn’t.”

Kessler & Solomiany partner Dennis G. Collard, who was a police officer in Pensacola, Fla., before becoming a lawyer, said it’s extremely important to be alert for signs that a party may be personalizing a dispute and to defuse any such situation.

“One of the most important measures is just to be aware of the emotional state of the person,” he said. “If they start to feel the conflict is with you, that’s a big red flag. If they’ve lost their job or other issues are causing stress to build up, you really need to be aware of that.”

“We had a case in Pensacola where a person went to the attorney’s office and killed the lawyer,” he recalled. “If somebody feels like it’s turned into a war with you, that’s the kind of person who’s going to come after you.”
Collard said that it’s often a good idea to use the opportunity of a deposition to lessen the contentious nature of a divorce.

“I’ve had several cases where I saw in the other party’s eyes that this had become a conflict with me,” Collard said. “As a litigator, you may have an instinct to escalate, but you really need to be the one to de-escalate, even though that can be hard. If you can leave that deposition with a handshake, call the person by his last name, ‘Mr. so-and-so’—a deposition’s a good place to do that, to keep it from becoming adversarial.”

Karen Sloan writes for National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate. Greg Land contributed to this story.