Updated at 10:04 a.m. on January 10.
It seems now that it was only a cruel twist of fate that the six who were killed in the grocery store parking lot on Saturday morning found themselves in the path of bullets when Jared Lee Loughner began firing indiscriminately into the crowd.
Among the fallen was John Roll, chief federal judge in Arizona, who had been at the center of some of the state’s fiercest court battles over illegal immigration. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik recounted Roll’s last hours in a press conference on Sunday. The 63-year-old judge had attended Mass on Saturday morning, as he did every week, and had decided to stop by the event that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was hosting to pay his respects to her. By all accounts, his death at the hands of a disturbed gunman was merely a tragic coincidence.
“Unfortunately, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Dupnik said at the press conference. Dupnik had warm words for Roll. “I’ve never met a more sincere, fair-minded, brilliant federal judge -- or any judge, for that matter -- in my whole life.”
Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, told The New York Times that his guess was that Roll stopped by to thank Giffords for a letter she had signed encouraging the 9th Circuit to declare a “judicial emergency” as a result of crippling caseloads in the district, particularly those involving immigration and border control. Michael Hawkins, U.S. Circuit Court judge of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, corroborated that scenario in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Although his death has been overshadowed by Giffords’s shooting, Roll’s killing has sent shock waves through the judicial community.
In a rare move, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued a public statement, a nod to the uncommonness of the tragedy. The New York Times reported that the last time a federal judge was killed was in 1989, when Judge Robert Vance died after a pipe bomb exploded at his home in Mountain Brook, Ala., making him the third federal judge to be assassinated in the 20th century.
“We in the judiciary have suffered the terrible loss of one of our own. Chief Judge John Roll was a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation with great distinction, as attorney and judge, for more than 35 years,” Roberts said in the statement. “Chief Judge Roll’s death is a somber reminder of the importance of the rule of law and the sacrifices of those who work to secure it.”
Roll himself was well aware of the perils of public life. In 2009, with hysteria over illegal immigration high, he faced death threats after ruling that a $32 million lawsuit brought by a group of Mexican immigrants accusing an Arizona rancher of civil-rights abuses be allowed to proceed. The case received some play on talk radio, and he and his family were placed under the protection of the U.S. Marshals Service until the men suspected of making threats were identified.
"I have a very strong belief that there is nothing wrong with criticizing a judicial decision," Roll told the Arizona Republic at the time. "But when it comes to threats, that is an entirely different matter."
Roll was born in Pittsburgh and obtained his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Arizona. He began his career as a bailiff in Pima County Superior Court, eventually moving up to become a prosecutor and then a judge on the Pima County Superior Court and the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1991, he was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate. He was named chief judge in 2006.
He is survived by his wife, Maureen, three grown children, and five grandchildren.