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For prosecutors across the country, threat of violence 'comes with the job'

Kaufman County District Attorney's Office via AFP

Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland.

The murder of two Texas prosecutors is a reminder that officers of courts across the nation continually face threats that can be terrifying but are rarely carried out.

"It comes with the job," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. "We all know that our jobs entail exposing ourselves to threats and risks."

Burns, who was a prosecutor in Utah, said it would be hard to find a member of his group who has not at some point been threatened or menaced.

Yet before Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse and DA Mike McLelland were gunned down two months apart, the NDAA had counted just 11 revenge slayings of local prosecutors since 1912.

The U.S. Marshals Service keeps tracks of threats against federal prosecutors and judges, and the number has hovered between 1,258 and 1,394 annually for the past five years after doubling between 2003 and 2008.

The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys said when a threat is lodged, the Marshals Service decides on the response, which can range from a new alarm system for the prosecutor's home to a family escort to 24-hour guard outside the house.

The group's lobbyist, Bruce Moyer, has pushed for more secure parking facilities for federal prosecutors.

"These folks work incredible hours. During a trial it's not unusual for them to be at the office from 10:30 to 11 o'clock at night. Parking is not always in a secure location and they might have to walk several blocks in an urban area unescorted," Moyer said.

He said other federal prosecutors have pushed to be deputized, which would allow them to carry a loaded firearm, but many requests are rejected.

The Marshals Service would not discuss specific security measures but said in a statement that it takes "appropriate steps to provide additional protection when it is warranted."

Personal accounts of unnamed prosecutors who had been threatened were attached to testimony the association submitted to Congress in 2007. They included:

— A prosecutor working a case against a group called Soldiers of the Aryan Culture said the marshals "intercepted a letter which spelled out a directive to killed the 'tall, bald prosecutor who runs a lot, goes to the airport a lot, and drives a silver Honda.'" He already had a home security system after threats during a motorcycle-gang prosecution. Now a closed-circuit TV was placed on a light-pole outside his home and he was deputized.

— A prosecutor whose children were threatened by an inmate said that after the marshals decided he was no longer in danger, he still feared for their lives. "They are now never left alone in our home," he said. His children's bus routes were changed, and he began carrying a gun.

— A drug prosecutor said an inmate tried to hire a hitman and provided him "detailed information about my home, automobiles and family." He was deputized and trained to check his car for a possible bomb, "which I did each day for more than a year."

Kaufman County Sheriff's Department via Reuters

Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse.

— A prosecutor who said a defendant in a gun case shot at him and another defendant had set his horses and dogs loose on a public roadway. "It is often unavoidably dangerous to be an AUSA and the more time spends in the position, the more danger the position entails," he said.

When he was a county prosecutor, Burns said, there was a defendant who would follow and film him. He would get anonymous phone threats saying, "'You're a dead man.'"

"The worst was when I would show up at a restaurant and find out the cook was someone I had put in prison and I'd already eaten the meal," he said.

But Burns said he didn't dwell on the possibility that someone might strike out because there was little he could do to prevent it beyond responding to a specific threat.

"It's impossible to have any security detail or system in place that would protect prosecutors 24/7," he said. "And the truth is what's happened in Texas is very rare."

He noted that there are 40,000 city, state, county and district prosecutors in the country who handle 10 million felony-level cases a year. Many are threatened; very few are ever attacked.

"Divorce attorneys are more likely to get shot in the head than we are," he said.

The death of Hasse and McLelland will give his membership pause, and they may take the next poison-pen letter or anonymous call more seriously, he said. But in general, he said, they will view threats as an unpleasant part of a job they love.

"You live with it," he said.

Related: Texas community in shock over slaying of DA, wife