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Judge Esther Salas Remembers The Night Of Assailant's Attack On Her Family


Tomorrow, New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy is scheduled to sign a law making it a crime to make public personal addresses and other identifying information about state judges or their families. Even though the law protects only state judges, federal Judge Esther Salas will be there because the law is named after her son, Daniel. In July, her son and husband were gunned down at their home. Her husband survived. Her son did not. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Salas remembers the night with terrible clarity.

ESTHER SALAS: It was just one of the best nights ever.

TOTENBERG: She and her son were in the basement cleaning up after a 20th birthday party for him, and they were talking.

SALAS: I remember him saying, mom, let's keep talking. I love talking to you, mom. And at that exact moment, the doorbell rang. And before I could say anything, he shot up the stairs. And then I heard my husband go, no. And then I heard several loud bangs.

TOTENBERG: So loud that as she raced upstairs, she thought a bomb had gone off.

SALAS: It was just as gruesome. There was my son, holding his chest, and my husband, who was - I didn't know - bleeding out. And he's screaming, call 911. Call 911.

TOTENBERG: Her son was pronounced dead at the hospital. Her husband, Mark, shot three times, has undergone multiple surgeries since then and is on the mend, a very slow mend. The shooter, later identified as 72-year-old Roy Den Hollander, was found after he committed suicide. A self-proclaimed antifeminist, he'd appeared once before Judge Salas months earlier, and she had postponed ruling on his case at the request of the government.

SALAS: He was angry with me for being a woman. He was angry for me being Latina.

TOTENBERG: The FBI later found in Hollander's car a list of other potential targets, including three female judges. Four federal judges have been killed since 1979, and the number of threats is now skyrocketing, according to the U.S. Marshal Service, which reported nearly 4,500 threats and what it calls inappropriate communications last year. The attack on the Salas home has, however, triggered a whole new response from Congress and the federal judiciary. Two days after the attack, New Jersey's two U.S. senators introduced legislation that would shield from disclosure online and elsewhere the personally identifiable information of federal judges and their immediate families, from home addresses and phone numbers to photos of their homes and cars.

The bill has important bipartisan support, and federal judges are hoping Congress will vote on the legislation before it adjourns at the end of the year. Judges are not allowed to lobby for a particular legislation, but Salas is speaking out about the need for increased security. The man who killed her son and so terribly wounded her husband had a complete dossier on her. He even knew where she went to church, and he'd mapped out her different routes to work.

SALAS: There are so many things that can be done that aren't being done. This is a matter of life or death.

TOTENBERG: Salas' son Daniel was her only child. Before he was born, she had three miscarriages.

SALAS: We referred to Danny as our karma baby and said that he was all our children rolled in one.

TOTENBERG: She's held on to her religious faith to get her through this time, she says, and being able to forgive his killer is part of that. Her husband was able to forgive when he was still in the ICU. It took her longer.

SALAS: But since the day we both forgave this man, we feel lighter. You know, we feel lighter.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.