7 Investigates: National expert: ‘Sara’s Law’ could set national case study for protecting family lawyers

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MADISON, Wis. (WSAW)-- 7 investigates found ‘Sara’s Law’, a bill named after March 22 shooting victim Sara Quirt Sann, could create a case study for other states about how to better protect family lawyers.

Utah lawyer Stephen Kelson, one of the country’s only experts on violence against lawyers, said "I think it does send a message, particularly for those individuals that it's going to be a felony or it's going to be a criminal act."

The Wisconsin State Legislature is scheduled to take up ‘Sara’s Law’ on Tuesday. If it passes, Kelson says it would be the first law of its kind in America. His 26 statewide surveys
show, on average, five percent of every legal professional has faced a threat or violence because of their work.

"But what really is happening is a lot greater than what attorneys in general think is happening," Kelson said. “A lot of attorneys just take it as it will never happen to me. Then when it happened they don’t know what to do.”

Behind the carefree picture many in central Wisconsin have come to recognize as Quirt Sann, her husband Scott Sann said the tireless children's lawyer, known in the legal system as a guardian ad litem, received threats for just doing her job.

"At times she had to be escorted out of the courtroom at the end of those hearings," Sann said.

Leading up to March 22, Quirt Sann had decided to take on more clients. The Vang divorce was her first divorce case.

“Her first and unfortunately her last,” Sann said.

A state investigation would later reveal the March 22 shooter, Nengmy Vang, targeted Quirt Sann only because she was his wife's divorce lawyer. In Vang’s mind, Quirt Sann stood in the way of ending their marriage.

"So she was integral in this as his wife was,” state Rep. Pat Snyder, R-Schofield, said. “She was not letting him get what he wanted. And so he was targeting all the people he thought wasn't giving him the resolution he wanted."

Snyder said once Quirt Sann's co-worker, Wausau lawyer Jessica Tlusty, brought this safety concern to his and Marathon state Sen. Jerry Petrowski’s attention, they felt there was a glaring loophole in the Wisconsin law that is supposed to protect officers of the court.

"What it was, and especially when they came and testified showing how the family law professionals do get threats. Like: 'I see your daughter. She's a lovely girl. It would be a shame if she went missing?' That's horrible," Snyder said.

7 Investigates tried for weeks to talk to area family lawyers about personal threats they face. Only one agreed to talk to us, but only if their identity was hidden. They said every day they go to work anxious about what could happen.

"I've received threatening letters in the mail due to guardian ad litem recommendations made. Positions taken on cases. I've had people threaten to, through letters, threaten to harm me. And I've had individuals actually follow and engage in stalking behavior," the family lawyer said.

Those types of threats against any Wisconsin judge, prosecutor, and law enforcement officer can mean a felony charge. A conviction can mean losing weapons, up to a $10,000 fine and up to six years in prison.

However, family lawyers, including guardian ad litems and corporate counsel, do not currently have the same protection from threats.

"Before legislation like this all they could do is say is we heard a threat. If you do it again we'll get a restraining (order.) But now at the discretion of the district attorney and the discretion of a judge, if it's ruled to be a harsh enough threat they can step forward and punish this, if need be, up to a felony."

In June, Kelson published a State Bar of Wisconsin case study saying in part, “While no survey has yet been conducted regarding threats and violence against the Wisconsin legal profession, it is unrealistic to assume the tragic death of Sara Quirt Sann is a unique occurrence and that something similar will not occur in the future.”

The latest Wisconsin Courts Security summary shows 86 security threats in 2016.

"Primarily the largest areas in legal practice that receive threats in violence are the areas of criminal law and when you're dealing with family law matters," Kelson said.

Most importantly, Kelson said, Sara's Law would be able to show whether increasing the punishment for making threats against family lawyers helps reduce threats over time.

“Deescalate the situation before it even begins, is I think the most important part," Scott Sann added.

If the law passes, Sann hopes to include pamphlets in law offices spelling out to clients that threatening a family lawyer is illegal. He said he felt an obligation to use his voice to do something good for other lawyers. He called it a return on an investment for a community that has help him heal.

“There's no choice. You've got to keep moving,” Sann said. “Because our community is so amazing I believe it's helped me move faster.”

Since NewsChannel 7 last talked to Sann, he has retired from managing the Greenwood Hills Country Club. Now he is in the process of expanding and running his own landscaping business.

"I think she'd (Quirt Sann) be very proud of that big step I've taken, finally,” Sann said. “Unfortunately, she was part of that process building the business with me, and won't be around to enjoy it with me. But I'm sure she's in a much better place. And able to enjoy it from where she is as well."

Sann is also focused on running the Sara Quirt Sann Legacy Scholarship Fund. Quirt Sann was a Wausau East High School graduate. The fund benefits Wausau East seniors attending a University of Wisconsin system school. For more information on the scholarship, including how to make a donation,
click here.

The State Senate is set to vote on the Sara's Law Tuesday. If it passes, it will head to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk to be signed into law.