John M. Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, has been the subject of hundreds of threats, some so serious he was for a time in 2009 placed under 24-hour protection. But it was an accident of bad timing — and his friendship with a congresswoman’s aide — that led to his fatal shooting Saturday at a political event in Tucson.
Roll was leaving a supermarket nearby when when he spotted Ron Barber, aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and “stopped by to say hi,” according to a spokeswoman for Giffords. A short time later, a gunman opened fire. Giffords, the apparent target, was wounded, as was Barber, her district director.
Roll was among six killed, making him the first federal judge killed since U.S. appeals court Judge Robert S. Vance was slain by a pipe bomb at his Birmingham, Ala., home in 1989.
“He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still unfolding.
In a statement, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. praised Roll as “a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation” and said his death “is a somber reminder of the importance of the rule of law and the sacrifices of those who work to secure it.’’
Roll was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and had been chief judge since 2006. A Pennsylvania native, he served as an Arizona state appeals court judge and assistant U.S. attorney before joining the federal bench.
Although only four federal judges have been killed in modern history, threats to judges and prosecutors have soared in recent years.
Roll was the victim of hundreds of threats in February 2009 after he allowed a lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against a rancher to go forward. “They cursed him out, threatened to kill his family, said they’d come and take care of him. They really wanted him dead,” a law enforcement official told The Washington Post in May 2009.
U.S. marshals put Roll under 24-hour protection for about a month. They guarded his home in a secluded area just outside Tucson, screening his mail and escorting him to court, to the gym and to the Catholic Mass he attended daily.
Roll told The Post in May 2009 that “any judge who goes through this knows it’s a stressful situation” and that he and his family were grateful for the protection.
Investigators said they do not think that Roll’s death was related to the 2009 threats but emphasized that they are conducting a thorough probe that will look into all possible motives — and will also examine any recent threats against the judge.
“We will determine . . . what brought the judge to the event, why he was at the grocery store this morning,’’ said Michael Prout, assistant director for judicial security for the U.S. Marshals Service.
Prout, whose agency protects federal judges and prosecutors, said Roll was “a friend and fan of the Marshals.’’
Colleagues and officials described Roll as a thoughtful and quiet man, an avid churchgoer and lap swimmer who loved public service and never complained about the threats against his life.
“We are brokenhearted,’’ said Rebecca White Berch, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, who knew Roll well. “He was one of the nicest, most gentle and fair people you can imagine. This is just devastating to everyone.’’
Berch said she and her federal judicial colleagues will closely review their security in light of Roll’s death. “I can certainly imagine that we’re all going to sit down and take a look at our policies and practices,’’ she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recommended Roll for the federal bench, said the judge “will be missed very much. . . . Judge Roll dedicated his life to public service and was admired by many for his integrity, kindness and love for the law.’’
Federal court personnel were the targets of 1,278 threats in fiscal 2008, more than double the number in 2003, according to a 2009 Justice Department inspector general’s report.
As threats have risen, more judges have altered their routes to work, installed security systems at home and shielded their addresses by paying bills at the courthouse. Some even pack weapons on the bench.
Much of the concern over judicial security was fueled by the slaying of U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow’s husband and mother in their Chicago home in 2005. But the killing of a judge is rare.
Other than Vance, federal judge Richard J. Daronco was shot to death in his back yard in New York in 1988 by the father of a plaintiff in a dismissed sex discrimination case. And U.S. District Judge John Wood was shot and killed outside his San Antonio townhouse in 1979. Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, is serving a life sentence for the murder.
Staff reporter Ed O’Keefe and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this story.