When I first became a prosecutor, my parents were proud—and concerned for my safety.
That concern increased when I transferred to the Rackets Bureau and starting handling organized crime cases.
Of course, I reassured them that I wasn’t in any real danger. After all, murdering an assistant district attorney is illogical. There’s a whole office full of other prosecutors who can take over any case should a colleague be killed.
It’s not like killing a witness, which could effectively end a case.
But after the recent murder of a prosecutor in Texas, I started to wonder if perhaps working in a district attorney’s office was more dangerous than I thought.
On Jan. 31, 2013, Mark Hasse, a prosecutor in the Kaufman County District Attorney's Office just outside of Dallas, was killed by a masked, black-clad gunman in an execution-style slaying in a courthouse parking lot.
Although authorities don’t currently have solid leads, they’ve acknowledged that his murder may have been an act of retaliation by a drug cartel or other organized crime group, including the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood.
The day Hasse died, the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement saying his office was among the agencies involved in a racketeering case targeting the Aryan Brotherhood.
The unsealed indictment described the Texas arm of the hate group as a gang prone to “extreme violence and threats of violence to maintain internal discipline and retaliate against those believed to be cooperating with law enforcement.”
Hasse was a veteran prosecutor who’d spent many years in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office before taking the position he held when he died.
As reported by Reuters, Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood described the daytime shooting as “an attack on our criminal justice system, which is really one of the basic fabrics of the free and open society that we live in.”
Hasse is the first prosecutor killed in the U.S. since the 2008 murder of Sean May, a Colorado prosecutor who was shot to death outside his house. His killing remains unsolved.
It appears that their murders are somewhat of an anomaly in the U.S.
According to reporter Jon Schuppe, the National Prosecutor Memorial in Columbia, SC currently lists the names of only 11 state prosecutors murdered in the line of duty. Hasse could be the 12th.
Maintained by the National District Attorneys Association, the list is almost entirely comprised of murders that happened since 1967, mostly by people whom the victims had put in jail or were trying to put in jail.
In other countries, however, prosecutors are far more vulnerable. For example, killing prosecutors and judges is not unheard of in places like Mexico and Columbia, where drug cartels seek to dominate the criminal justice system so that drug cases aren’t even brought in the first place.
The killing of prosecutors was also commonplace in Italy at the height of the Mafia’s power there.
In fact, the murder of prosecutors was so common that few dared to bring even minor charges against anyone affiliated with the mob.
Two prosecutors did refuse to bow to pressure and threats. Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were among the first prosecutors to aggressively and successfully go after the mob in Sicily.
Unfortunately, they ultimately both paid with their lives.
Falcone was killed in 1992 by a roadside bomb that also killed his wife and three bodyguards. Just a few months later, Borsellino and five police officers were killed in a car bomb outside his mother’s house.
(For a detailed look into the lives and careers of Falcone and Borsellino, I highly recommend the book Excellent Cadavers by Alexander Stille.)
It’s unlikely that prosecutors in the U.S. will ever be in the kind of everyday danger that these brave men faced.
But in light of the Hasse and May murders, it’s important to remember that they can be threatened and to not become complacent when such threats are made.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.