Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that Charles Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson, is serving a life prison sentence for the 1979 murder of a federal judge. Harrelson was serving a life sentence but died in prison in 2007. This version has been corrected.
Slain judge was target of threats in '09; officials doubt link to Giffords shooting
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 10:54 PM
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.