Joan Lefkow could have taken the easy way out. In 2003, the Chicago federal judge was presiding over a case involving white supremacist Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator. A religious group in Oregon with the same name was challenging Hale's right to use it. During the trial, a shocking twist: police charged Hale with trying to have Judge Lefkow killed. She could have stepped down from the case. Instead, she stood firm, citing her duty to the justice system. "A party should not be allowed to intimidate a judge off a case," she said.
Police now are trying to determine if her bravery was repaid with monstrous cruelty. Judge Lefkow walked into her home last Monday to find her husband, Michael Lefkow, a 64-year-old lawyer, and her 89-year-old mother, Donna Humphrey, in a pool of blood. They had been shot dead at point-blank range. While law-enforcement authorities have not tied the killings to white supremacists, they are questioning racist sympathizers of Hale, 33, who has been held in a Chicago prison since last year on murder-solicitation charges. He is to be sentenced next month.
Judge Lefkow is staying at an undisclosed Chicago hotel with her four daughters, under heavy police guard. In telephone interviews with Chicago reporters, she said she believed the murders were tied to her rulings on the bench. At turns weeping and burning with rage, she expressed anger and feelings of guilt that her family members were targets. "If someone was angry at me, they should go after me," she told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Since the killings, Hale has been moved to a more-isolated cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. He issued a statement on Thursday through his mother, Evelyn Hutcheson, denouncing the killings as "heinous" and saying it would be "idiotic" to think he would order violence against the judge on the brink of his sentencing. His father, Russell Hale, told NEWSWEEK that his son is "very upset" about the killings because they could mean a stiffer sentence for him.
The murders highlighted the risks for judges. In New York, judges in terror cases often live with round-the-clock bodyguards. Lefkow had police protection for just a few weeks during the Hale case. Her friend and colleague, federal Judge Wayne Andersen, said protection for jurists must be increased: "Everything about us is on the Internet." Inside the Lefkow house, police found empty beverage cans and cigarette butts, which are being tested for genetic materials. Police also found a bloody mop, presumably used to clean up after the murders. Authorities offered a $50,000 reward. They also released sketches of two men seen in a car parked near the Lefkow home, smoking cigarettes and drinking from cans. One was described as a white man in his mid-20s with strawberry-blond hair. The other was said to be a large white man in his 50s, wearing a black watch cap and dark green coveralls.
Judge Lefkow was vilified by hate groups after she ruled that Hale's outfit could no longer use the name World Church of the Creator. The judge had initially ruled in favor of Hale, but was reversed by an appellate court and then ordered Hale to drop the name. The group became notorious in 1999, when one of its members, Benjamin Smith, went on a shooting rampage targeting racial minorities, killing two and wounding nine others.
Hale is regarded as a hero in the shadowy world of professional haters. Among his admirers is Hal Turner, who hosts a New Jersey-based Internet radio show. During a broadcast in 2002, Turner said the Hale ruling made Lefkow "worthy of being killed," adding that "it wouldn't be legal, but it wouldn't be wrong." Judge Lefkow says she will return to work. "Nobody is going to intimidate me off the bench," she told reporters. But she doesn't know if she'll ever be able to walk into her home again.