Security concerns a priority for courtroom

Around a year ago, Anderson County Judge Donald Elledge and other members of the court security committee approached the Anderson County Commission to discuss the need for a separate room for victims of crime who go through the Anderson County court system.

Now, District 4 Commissioner Tim Isbel is ready to bring that back to the table.

“I’m going to put it on operations [committee] this week,” he said. “I’ve been there when court’s been in session and I’ve seen how aggressive parties can be.”

His concerns come after a shooting at the Oak Ridge courthouse parking lot in October, but there are other security problems in both Oak Ridge and Clinton, according to Isbel.

When the presentation was made a year ago, no action was taken.

Isbel said he plans to ensure action is taken this time around.

Seventh Judicial District Attorney Dave Clark told The Courier News that he and others have requested a safe space for victims and witnesses that are in the courthouse for hearings, whether they’re in criminal, chancery or general sessions court.

“It’s for a variety of reasons,” he said. “One is to physically keep them safe, to deter violence in the hallways of the courthouse and allow everyone to feel safe, but also to separate the parties and the jurors in the interest of justice.”

It’s a movement being made across the state for victim security. Other courthouses have already made the changes, including Claiborne County and even the courthouse in Oak Ridge.

The Courier News was present during a hearing in general sessions court in Clinton last week scheduled for Chris Simonds, charged with the aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping of a woman in Norris.

The victim sat near the back of the room as she waited to be interviewed by an assistant district attorney prior to the hearing.

When she was called to come to the front of the courtroom, she was surprised. Sitting three rows in front of members of the accused’s family and Simonds himself, the assistant district attorney assigned to her case told her what she planned to do, and asked some questions about the case.

Knowing that she had the right to a private room, the victim requested to be seated in a separate room during the hearing; she was told she could sit in the hallway.

In the hallway, there was no security presence.

“I hated feeling like a number,” she told The Courier News. “It was dehumanizing. I don’t know why the process seems difficult, unprofessional and inhumane at times. It makes me wonder, what rights do we really have?”

Simonds’ trial was reset for Nov. 28.

“There’s no reason that folks going through general sessions II [the courthouse in Oak Ridge] should be treated any better than those going through general sessions I [Clinton],” Clark said. “The same sessions courtroom in Oak Ridge has meeting rooms that were built into it when it was designed. The one in Clinton doesn’t yet.”

Clark believes that there is space near the elevator on the third floor for two separate rooms. The cost would not be too high; the cost for not having one, however, could be.

Isbel said that there are options available that would improve the security of the courthouse as a whole.

In Clinton, there is no security checkpoint until the third floor, which is the floor all the courts are held on. This leaves gaps in security for not just victims and witnesses, but also judges, jurors and attorneys who are on the first or second floor. One option, according to Isbel, would be moving all the fee offices to the Jolley building next door and all the courts into the courthouse. Juvenile court is currently in the Jolley building.

“That way you could really secure it,” Isbel said.

The Courier News will follow up on this story following the operations meeting on Thursday.