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TUCSON — On Jan. 5, 2011, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson carried a front-page story about a letter Arizona’s chief federal judge, John Roll, had written to Judge Alex Koszinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The letter warned of a judicial emergency of crisis proportions.
An intense wave of drug and immigration enforcement along the U.S. border with Mexico had resulted in a staggering increase in arrests, and the number of federal prosecutors pushing those cases through the courts had more than doubled.
The number of federal judges in Arizona, however, had stayed the same.
Roll described the deluge of cases as a “tsunami” and said the four judges on the front lines in Tucson, as well as their colleagues in Phoenix, were so overwhelmed that it threatened the integrity of the courts.
“We’ve reached a chokepoint,” he said. He wanted the 9th Circuit’s permission to begin delaying felony trials until more judges could be appointed.
In the staid, black-robed world of the federal judiciary, the letter amounted to a desperate plea for help. And it would lead to John McCarthy Roll’s last official act.
Three days after the story appeared, Roll stopped at a supermarket not far from his home to greet a congressional ally in his fight. There, he was shot and killed by a 23-year-old community college dropout, later diagnosed with schizophrenia, who had spiraled into a homicidal rampage.
Six people, including Roll, died that Saturday morning outside the Safeway store on the northwestern outskirts of Tucson. Thirteen others were shot, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely wounded as she greeted constituents at a gathering she called “Congress on Your Corner.”
Had Roll died in isolation, his name would have dominated headlines across the country. He is one of only four federal judges to be killed in office in the last half century, a grim distinction largely subsumed by the stories of others there that day. A 9-year-old girl. A 76-year-old retired secretary. A promising young congressional staffer. And Giffords herself.
Roll didn't need to be there that day, but earlier in the week, Giffords, too, had written a letter in support of Roll’s request for help, and he wanted to thank her.
“John went there because the Congress on the Corner was not that far from his house,” said former Chief Judge Raner Collins, a close friend and colleague of Roll’s. “He thought, ‘You know, it would be very disrespectful for her to be that close to my house and not go by and say hi.’”
It didn’t matter that Roll was a conservative judge and Giffords was a Democratic congresswoman. He respected her and he respected her office. That kind of respect wasn’t something he reserved for politicians or colleagues and attorneys, but something he conferred upon everyone who showed up in his courtroom, as well as those he encountered in everyday life.
“Be he a beggar or a king, he respected everyone equally,” said Monsignor John Lyons, who knew Roll since their Catholic elementary school days, when they would occasionally wind up together on the wooden bench outside the principal’s office. “That was who he was.”
As the 10th anniversary of Roll’s death approached, The Arizona Republic reviewed accounts of dozens of cases he was involved in and interviewed more than a dozen friends, colleagues and attorneys, some of whom had both argued before him as a judge and against him when he was a prosecutor.
Roll commanded such admiration and affection that even 10 years after his death, several of those who were interviewed became so emotional they had to pause and compose themselves. Time and again, the same phrases surfaced:
Devoted to his family. Devout in his faith. Dedicated to the law.
He was a man of regimen, serious, hardworking and conservative, but he was also fun, self-deprecating and kind. And he loved hummingbirds.
Compassionate, but formidable
A lifelong Catholic, Roll attended Mass every morning. Near his desk he kept a well-thumbed biography of St. Thomas More, the English lawyer, statesman and philosopher who forgave his executioner before he was beheaded on the orders of King Henry VIII.
As a jurist, Roll ran such a tight courtroom that he would threaten to sanction attorneys who were late or unprepared; a snide comment about another judge in a judicial meeting would draw a death stare.
He also arranged to have people with developmental disabilities hired to work around the courthouse and took the time to learn their names and ask about their families. When a fellow judge needed baseball equipment for a youth team he was coaching, Roll showed up with a whole bag of gear his three boys had outgrown and even threw in the bat he had kept for protection, saying the kids needed it more than he did.
Once, a law clerk was trailing behind the judge on the way to a meeting and suddenly lost sight of Roll. He found the judge outside the courthouse, bending down to help a homeless man who had fallen.
As a former state and federal prosecutor, Roll was a formidable adversary. When preparing for trial he would spend hours mapping out every conceivable question of every witness along with their anticipated responses, which many attorneys do. After the trial, he would spend just as much time going back over his list to see what he’d missed and make a record of it in case similar issues arose in other cases.
But he wasn’t all work.
He drove a red Corvette — he said it was his wife’s — played guitar in a garage band in high school, and loved the Beatles and classic rock ‘n’ roll so much that he needed two iPods to hold his music collection.
And if he worked as hard on his golf game and other athletic endeavors as he did in court, it never showed.
“Roll, Collins and Zapata, three names that will never appear on a PGA leaderboard,” colleague Frank Zapata said, recalling how he, Collins and Roll had occasionally played hooky on Thursday afternoons to go golfing.
In fact, Roll often lamented his long career as a failed athlete, dating back to his youth in Tucson. Box scores from Salpointe Catholic High School cross-country meets always list him as a finisher, but never a medalist, and the only time he ever won a swim meet was when the team was so far ahead in points that the coach would let him swim a relay leg.
The grit, competitiveness and perseverance he learned in high school were qualities that would serve Roll well in the court room, but while he was always laser-focused on the bench or in front of a jury, that focus would sometimes go haywire once he stepped outside the halls of justice.
Rick Weare, a longtime chief federal courts administrator, recalled how Roll once tried to back out of his garage without opening the garage door. That same week, he accidentally backed into a vintage Jaguar sports car owned by another judge.
Weare recalled planning a trip to a judicial conference in San Diego with Roll. Because Roll lived in Tucson and Weare lived in the Phoenix area, they decided to meet halfway, at the McDonald’s in Gila Bend, and drive the rest of the way together in Roll’s ‘vette.
Somehow, Roll got lost and couldn’t find the only McDonald’s in a town of 2,000 people, even though it was on the main drag and visible from the interstate. In his eulogy for Roll, Weare also recalled how he once got lost in a parking garage.
“In his defense, it was a large garage," he said, "but still.”
Weare helped plan Roll’s federal investiture, or swearing-in ceremony, in 1991 and was immediately struck by how much they had in common. They were both the same age and came from similar backgrounds. They had kids the same age, and both were married to strong women who were social workers. It was only natural that they became close friends.
They would often have lunch together — always Mexican food at El Charro or Cafe Poca Cosa — when Weare made his weekly trips from Phoenix to Tucson as part of his duties. After Roll became chief judge they talked on the phone every day, including on weekends, and they often traveled together to judicial conferences and meetings, where Weare was constantly amazed at how Roll managed to stick to his routines and regimens.
“Even when he was out of town he would find a church (for morning Mass) … and he would spend time finding a (YMCA) someplace within driving distance of where we were staying to go swimming first thing in the morning,” Weare said. “I’d get a call the night before, saying, ‘Hey Rick, I found a place.’”
Sometimes the two would disagree on an issue coming before the court, Weare said, “but he was wonderful in that you could disagree. I might disagree with him, he might disagree with me, but it was for the better good of the court and we always came down on the same page.”
A full caseload
When Roll died, he was just a month shy of his 64th birthday and had been chief judge for five years, a title that conveys a more ostentatious image than the job actually entails.
The position is largely administrative — ensuring the courts run smoothly and efficiently — and it typically falls to the most senior judge who is under 65 years old. In Arizona, it can fall to someone from either the Phoenix or the Tucson division.
Despite the extra duties, chief judges are expected to maintain much of their regular caseloads. During Roll’s tenure, those caseloads were staggering, especially in Tucson. In a busy district court elsewhere in the country, a federal judge might be responsible for 300 cases a year. At the time of his death, Roll and his colleagues were handling as many as 900 each, and despite help from colleagues in Phoenix as well as from visiting judges, they were constantly struggling to avoid running afoul of the so-called Speedy Trial Law, which requires that defendants must be tried within 70 days of their indictment.
“It was just really, really intense,” said current Chief Judge G. Murray Snow, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2008.
With so many incoming cases and the federal law requiring that they be heard promptly, “you pretty much have to keep your calendar going.”
Snow said that while some chief judges will reduce their caseloads to handle administrative duties, Roll didn’t.
“He always stayed up, had a complete caseload,” Snow said. “He was in the office very early and a very hardworking guy.”
Like Roll, Snow was appointed to the federal bench after serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and it was Roll who swore him in and helped him make the transition from appellate work, in which the cases have already been tried and the facts established, to that of a trial judge.
Roll urged Snow to attend a 9th Circuit conference before he’d even transitioned from his state role to his new job. At every conference afterward, Snow would see Roll early every morning heading to the swimming pool while he was on his way to the gym.
Snow and Roll would sometimes engage in deep theological discussions, and though Snow is Mormon, the discussions were less about trying to convert each other and more about trying to understand each other, Snow said.
Snow said the examples Roll set have helped him in his own role as chief judge.
In one case involving a difficult conversation with a longtime employee whose work had been slipping, Snow offered to accompany Roll for moral support.
“I said, 'I’ll go with you when you’re going to have this conversation,' and he said, 'no, you won’t,'” Snow recalled.
“This message is not going to be well-received,” Roll told Snow. Roll said the employee was likely to “resent you for the rest of your life … so I’m going to do it alone.”
“Truthfully, if you’re talking about insight into John Roll,” Snow said, “it provided a whole lot of insight for me.”
A prosecutor and a judge
Roll wasn’t exactly a household name in Tucson, but his name appeared in the paper frequently, usually in connection with some of Southern Arizona’s biggest cases. Border shootings, international arms smuggling cases, gun control laws, racial profiling and even the bankruptcy auction of eight highly coveted University of Arizona basketball season tickets were argued in his courtroom.
He made a bit of history when, as a deputy Pima County attorney, he became the first lawyer in Arizona to argue on camera in the state Supreme Court after the justices agreed to allow news cameras in the courtroom. (He lost the case.)
Despite the way it appears on TV, the law is not always glamorous, but for Roll, it had its moments. He once had to cross-examine a tarot-card reader in a drug trial, and one of his earliest cases as a Tucson city prosecutor involved a couple who were cited for keeping roosters illegally within the city limits and tried to argue that the ordinance was discriminatory.
If rich people were allowed to have dogs that barked, the defense argued, why couldn’t poor people be allowed to have roosters that crowed?
“Poor people can also keep barking dogs, and rich people cannot keep roosters, either, so the comparison is invalid,” Roll countered.
The city prosecutor position was one of his first jobs after graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1972. He stayed only four months before moving to the Pima County Attorney’s Office, where he almost didn’t get hired because the chief deputy county attorney, James Howard, said he thought Roll “was too bashful and quiet to be a trial lawyer.”
Howard was wrong. In his seven years in the office, Roll prosecuted more jury trials than anyone in the office and won almost all of them.
In 1980, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson and made a name for himself leading organized crime and drug prosecutions, and his ambition and attention to detail made him a natural for white collar crimes and complex finance cases.
Seven years later, the retirement of Judge Ben Birdsall, one of Roll’s mentors, created an opening on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and Roll was one of three names submitted to Gov. Evan Mecham for consideration.
Mecham called Roll’s home on a Saturday morning, but Roll was at Mass so Mecham asked Roll’s wife, Maureen, to take a message. She said she would, but only if it was good news, otherwise, Mecham would have to call back later and tell Roll himself. The governor didn’t need to make a second call.
Roll served four years on the Court of Appeals, which included temporary assignments on both the Pima County Superior Court bench and the Arizona Supreme Court. He was nominated to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
As a prosecutor Roll put a lot of bad guys in jail, and as a judge he did the same.
As an acting Arizona Supreme Court justice he authored an opinion upholding the 2,975-year prison sentence of a child molester, and as a federal judge he threw the book at a man and sentenced him to the maximum 10 years in prison for shooting his girlfriend in the face, even though she testified it was an accident and begged Roll for leniency.
Just a few weeks later, Roll, a lifelong Catholic, even put a priest in jail — for embezzling $400,000. He did, however, show his merciful side. Even though the man faced 60 years in prison, Roll gave him six months after receiving hundreds of letters from parishioners who said the priest had used the money to help them buy food and pay rent and medical bills.
He denied bail for a Border Patrol agent who’d been accused of shooting a suspected border-crosser in the back, saying the fact that the agent had moved the body and delayed reporting the incident indicated he’d tried to conceal the crime. In another high-profile case, he granted bail for one of six suspected members of the Irish Republican Army accused of trying to purchase detonators and a shoulder-fired Stinger missile in Tucson, even though, as a foreign national, prosecutors considered him a flight risk.
Roll ruled against ranchers who wanted to graze cattle on public lands and declared that the U.S. government had failed to protect critical habitat for the endangered jaguar, which heartened environmentalists. But he infuriated those same environmentalists when he allowed construction of a National Weather Service radar tower to proceed in the mountains southeast of Tucson.
Roll ruled that two children who were conceived from their father’s frozen sperm after his death were not allowed to receive his Social Security benefits, a decision that was overturned, but in another case, he hammered the Tucson Unified School District for failing to provide adequate accommodations for a disabled boy. He pointed out that administrators had spent 10 times more in attorney fees than they would have if they had just done the right thing in the first place.
Not everyone who crossed paths with Roll revered him. After the controversial acquittal of the Border Patrol agent charged with fatally shooting an immigrant in the back, the mother of the victim said she believed Roll had been biased in favor of law enforcement at the trial.
Critics also assailed rulings in cases in which he allowed Border Patrol agents to engage in limited racial profiling and to drop in to a border merchant’s business without a warrant. Both rulings were eventually overturned.
‘Pretty hard to change his mind’
Longtime Tucson attorney Erik O’Dowd, who now lives near Santa Barbara, California, said he felt he didn’t get a fair shake from Roll in a financial fraud trial. He said he believed Roll had harbored ill feelings for him stemming from their encounter a decade earlier.
Roll had been a deputy Pima County attorney in the early 1980s, assisting in the prosecution of a high-profile case involving allegations of extreme physical abuse and neglect at an internationally known boarding school on the outskirts of Tucson.
O’Dowd was representing one of the two employees who, along with the school director, were charged in the case.
“It was a slugfest. Their witnesses were kids and disaffected employees,” O’Dowd recalled. His client was a teacher and part-time nurse at the school, “and I fought really hard because if she was convicted of anything, that would be the end of her career.”
The director was convicted, but O’Dowd’s client was acquitted.
“I learned this about John,” he said, “Prosecutors can have a cocktail with their fellow lawyers after a heated day in the courtroom or not. He was a 'not.'"
A decade later, O’Dowd was representing plaintiffs in a class-action suit against retailer Circle K in a case that had bounced among several District Court judges before being assigned to Roll.
In state courts, attorneys can ask for a different judge without stating a reason, but in federal court, they must prove actual bias or conflict of interest.
“The fact is, I didn’t have any proof of factual bias,” O’Dowd said. “I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me at all, both ways, but I couldn’t get rid of him.”
Almost from the start, virtually every procedural and evidentiary ruling went against O’Dowd.
“After we adjourned, I went out in the hallway, and standing there was someone who had been in the audience. He comes up to me and he says, ‘That judge hates you, doesn’t he?’” O’Dowd recounted. “That’s how palpable it was.”
Fred Kay, a longtime Tucson federal public defender, argued both against Roll, when he was a prosecutor, and before him, when he was a judge.
He said Roll was a prosecutor’s prosecutor, and a prosecutor’s dream as a judge.
Kay described Roll as “pretty hardcore."
"I don't think he could have ever done defense work," Kay said. "He was a real kind of law-and-order guy and very serious about what he was doing.”
Kay remembered watching Roll as the jury came into the courtroom with a verdict in a case they’d argued against each other.
“I glanced over at him,” Kay said. “He was sitting at the table with his hands clasped very tightly. And he was he was looking down with his eyes closed. It was like he was trying to squeeze a guilty verdict out of this jury.”
Kay’s client was acquitted, but he doesn’t remember Roll having any particular reaction.
He said while he never observed any outright bias on Roll’s part on the bench, it was clear his experience as a prosecutor informed both his judicial philosophy as well as his temperament.
“I think he tried to be very fair, but I think if there was any discretion, it was generally in favor of the prosecution because he believed that people that were charged with things need to be pulled up and pay the price,” Kay said.
“You could discuss things with him, but it was pretty hard to change his mind,” Kay said. “He sort of had blinders on once he decided what the case was all about."
Michael Piccarreta, one of Tucson's most prominent defense attorneys, also argued both against and before Roll.
He said he didn’t mind that Roll approached cases from the point of view as a prosecutor, and in fact appreciated it.
“It was interesting because we’re sort of different personalities. He was sort of a conservative prosecutor, and I’m sort of a progressive defense lawyer, but we got along because he played it straight,” Piccarreta said. “He was not a bully, which you see too often these days with prosecutors. He was just a lawyer handling a case, and I was a lawyer on the other side.”
Piccarretta was the defense attorney who represented Michael Elmer, the border agent accused of shooting the immigrant in the back. Elmer was initially tried and acquitted in state court, then retried on civil rights violations in federal court.
Though the victim’s mother was critical of Roll, Piccarreta said Roll went by the book.
“It was a relatively long trial, and John called balls and strikes. Calls went one way and calls went the other way. He did not have an impact on the outcome. The judge is the umpire and not the coach.”
Even so, Roll received death threats when Elmer was acquitted a second time. Elmer was subsequently charged in an unrelated, non-fatal shooting case. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time he had already served.
Decisions and threats
It was not the only time Roll would be threatened. Two years before his death, Roll presided over a case in which 16 immigrants who were in the country illegally claimed they were detained at gunpoint, kicked, beaten and threatened with dogs by a rancher named Roger Barnett after crossing his land near the border.
The case erupted as anti-immigrant fervor was just beginning to grip the nation, and Barnett was hailed as the “vigilante rancher” by right-wing cable TV personalities Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs. Barnett sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that non-U.S. citizens had no right to sue over civil rights violations because they had no civil rights.
Roll rejected the argument and allowed the case to move forward to a jury. It was one of the first times in history that individuals who were in the country illegally were allowed to sue someone over civil rights violations.
Armed federal marshals were assigned to Roll’s courtroom because of threats that ensued from the talk-radio-fueled frenzy around the case, and Roll and his family were assigned 24-hour security for a month.
Federal marshals accompanied him everywhere, from his morning swims to his daily mass attendance, prompting one, who was Catholic, to quip that he’d been to Mass more times in 30 days than he had in 30 years.
“It becomes very uncomfortable to live under that situation,” said Zapata, one of Roll’s close colleagues on the bench. “You’re living with the U.S. Marshals. They’re at your house. You’re living with them escorting you to and from wherever you want to go. It limits your movement, and it reinforces the fact that you are in danger and your family is in danger.”
Zapata, who keeps a framed copy of Roll’s funeral program on his desk adorned with a small American flag, recalled another high-profile case Roll had ruled on years earlier.
This one involved a challenge to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act by former Graham County Sheriff and Second Amendment activist Richard Mack, who claimed that a provision of the law that required local law enforcement agencies to conduct background checks was unconstitutional.
Roll agreed and struck down that provision of the law. He was later reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was in turn reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing Roll’s ruling to stand.
“He made that decision based strictly on the law and what was Constitutional,” Zapata said. “But in the end it was a terrible irony that he ended up being killed by a kid who tried to buy a gun at one place and they told him no, and he went to another place and got the gun that he ended up taking out to the Congress on Your Corner.”
At the Safeway
When Roll arrived at the Safeway that morning to thank Giffords, there was already a long line, and he thought about leaving and coming back when the crowd thinned out.
But he ran into an old friend from his undergraduate days at the University of Arizona, Ron Barber, who was Giffords’ chief of staff and would later succeed her in office after she was forced to step down because of her injuries from the shooting.
Roll and Barber first met passing out literature for the campus Democrats.
It was a secret that Roll, a die-hard conservative, rarely admitted to, but he was a fan of John F. Kennedy. He also admired Robert F. Kennedy’s work as his brother’s attorney general — it was one of the things that had propelled him to law school..
Barber and Roll had lost touch after college, but they reconnected when Giffords was elected. Barber said that despite the years and their diverging political paths, Roll was just as committed to human dignity as he was in college.
Barber got to witness an example of that up close.
Not long after a Giffords was elected, a conservative Texas congressman came to Tucson for the city’s famed gem and mineral show and scheduled a meeting with Roll, Giffords and others so he could claim the trip was for official business, Barber said.
“As this meeting went along, this guy was just talking in such a disparaging way about people who were undocumented,” Barber recalled. “At one point the congressman said we need to get this clutter off the border, meaning people who are coming here for refuge or work.”
Barber said he could see Roll getting more and more upset.
“He said, ‘Congressman, in our court the people you are talking about are defendants, not clutter. That’s not language we use in my court.’ That shut the congressman up right away,” Barber said.
“Though he was very conservative in his political beliefs, he was really strong on the issue of due process and people who deserve to be treated with respect no matter what their issue was.”
Barber was standing next to Giffords at the Safeway on the day of the shooting when he spotted Roll in the crowd. He walked over and asked if he was there to see Giffords.
“He said, 'Yeah, but there’s a long line. I won’t bother her now, I’ll come back later,'” Barber said.
He still struggles with what happened next.
“I said no, 'no, John, I know that as soon as she’s done talking to these constituents she’ll want to talk with you,'” Barber said. “He walked around the table and stood right beside me, and within a second of that, that’s when the shooter shot Gabby. We were both watching, and then he turned the gun on me and John.”
A store surveillance video appears to show Roll pushing Barber out of the way and then lying on top of him as if to protect him.
“When you see the video, that’s what it looks like for sure,” said Barber, who suffered gunshot wounds to his face and groin.
A news story about the video came out about a week after the shooting, and Roll’s wife called Barber.
“Maureen called me, and she was really upset, not about the article but about the impact it might have on me,” Barber said. “In the middle of all this emotion, that she was so kind in the midst of having just lost her husband three or four days earlier, that’s the kind of family they that they are.”
It was not her only act of compassion.
When it came time to sentence the man who killed her husband and five other people, she did not want him to receive the death penalty, but instead wanted him placed where he could not harm anyone else.
Faith and strength
In the days after her husband’s death, Maureen Roll was besieged with interview requests, including one from a national reporter who called her home at 6 a.m.
She has never granted an interview, but she responded to a personal letter from an Arizona Republic reporter via e-mail, apologizing for not writing a formal letter.
“I understand that you believe his story got lost amid the horrible headlines in the days after his death,” she wrote. “But a lack of attention to his life is not how my family and I felt then or now. There is always something to remind us of this tragedy. I am well aware that it will all come up again this January 8th.”
Roll said her husband would not have wanted to be in the spotlight.
“The idea of you writing a story about him and not about all those who were killed and injured would have made him very uncomfortable,” she said.
Roll said she received more than a thousand cards, letters and gifts after her husband’s death, including one from President Barack Obama as well as several from people who said Roll had changed their lives by sending them to prison. She answered each one personally.
She and Roll were high-school sweethearts, and friends described them as not only joined at the hip, but at the heart.
(She also held him to account. Zapata, the judge and colleague, recalled how Roll once bought a new golf shirt and proudly showed it off to Maureen. “She said, ‘Let me get this straight,'" Zapata recalled. "'You guys are sneaking off to play golf wearing shirts with the U.S. District Court logo on them?'”)
While Roll was an early riser, his wife was not, so he would bring her coffee in bed which she would drink while he read scriptures to prepare for the day.
“I believe his faith gave him strength in life and as a judge,” Maureen Roll wrote, adding that his devotion began at an early age.
That faith made him gravitate toward other men of faith, like Chief Judge Snow and fellow District Court Judge James Teilborg, with whom Roll talked with almost daily.
"He was Catholic and I'm Protestant, but when you get past the faith traditions, we were clearly Bible oriented, Bible-believing Christians," Teilborg said.
Neither of Roll’s parents graduated from high school, but both were devout Catholics. Though they didn’t have much money, they sent their children to parochial schools.
According to a profile in a Federal Bar Association magazine, Roll’s father had worked with Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, where Roll was born. The family moved to Tucson when Roll was in elementary school, hoping the warm dry climate would help his mother’s severe rheumatoid arthritis.
His father worked as a maintenance man and a carpenter in Tucson and never was able to find a job that paid as well as the one he left in Pittsburgh, but the sacrifice he made for his wife's help left an impression on Roll.
Esther McCarthy Roll died at age 51, when Roll was a freshman in high school.
“Her sense of humor, bravery in coping with her medical condition, and convictions forever shaped his life,” the article says. “John remembers her emphasis on doing what is right even if popular opinion is to the contrary, and the God-given dignity of every human being.”
That was reflected in a letter to the editor Roll wrote to the Tucson Citizen when he was 18, calling for a more humane immigration policy.
"When we reject potential citizens on the illogical basis of nationality," he wrote, "we are rejecting the principles upon which America was founded.
Roll would later legally change his middle name to McCarthy, her maiden name, in her honor.
Maureen Roll said she didn’t know what triggered her husband’s devotion to conservative ideals, especially after he had skipped school to see John F. Kennedy when he campaigned in Tucson.
Several friends said that while Roll admired Robert Kennedy, especially his crusade against organized crime and his emphasis on dignity for all, he may have felt the Republican party’s stance on crime and civil unrest was more in tune with his personal sense of order, while the Democratic party position on other issues, like abortion, was out of step with his religious beliefs.
Maureen and John Roll were married for 41 years and had three boys. John Roll relished weekend camping trips with the family to nearby Mount Lemmon, especially with his grandchildren, who knew him as Papa.
According to The Federal Lawyer profile, Roll redoubled his commitment to his family after his youngest son became seriously ill as a child.
Roll had been attending a seminar out of town when the boy was hospitalized in a pediatric intensive care unit with a high fever and uncontrolled seizures. By the time Roll got there a priest had already administered the sacrament of Last Rites to the child.
They boy recovered, but the episode left Roll shaken, and, according to the profile, “he resolved to reprioritize his life.”
It was a vow he kept, despite a personality that was “not type A, but type triple A” and despite a crushing workload that he was reluctant to share because “it would put an extra burden on his colleagues,” Maureen Roll said.
“The boys and I always felt we were the top priority in his life, despite his life as the Chief Judge for Arizona,” Maureen Roll wrote.
“At this point, all my family and I have left are our personal memories of a wonderful husband, father, and papa. But, I can sum up much about John in a few words. As I said, he was a very humble man. He was kind and respectful to everyone he met. He was a brilliant and fair judge. He was a devout Catholic. He loved his family. He loved this country and what it stands for.”
Several years after Roll’s death, a new federal courthouse was built in Yuma to help with the tidal wave of immigration cases in Arizona. It was one of the projects Roll and Giffords had worked on together and one of things that brought him to the Safeway parking lot that day.
The U.S. Senate, which had voted unanimously to confirm John McCarthy Roll in 1991, again unanimously voted to name the Yuma courthouse in his honor.
This year, another memorial, this one for all the victims of the Jan. 8 shooting, as well as the first responders who helped them, will be dedicated not far from the federal building in downtown Tucson.
Roll’s colleagues, the judges and magistrates of the Arizona district, contributed $50,000 toward a garden for the memorial, filled with desert plants that will attract hummingbirds, which Roll loved to watch every morning while he was having his breakfast.
A nearby memorial wall contains stylized symbols representing the important things in the lives of everyone who was shot that day.
Roll’s life is summed up in seven symbols:
A gavel, representing his role as chief judge.
A Celtic cross, representing his faith.
A quill and scroll, representing his love for the Constitution.
A guitar, representing his love of music.
And a swimmer, representing his favorite physical regimen.
The last two symbols are an image representing his family, which he loved more than anything, and a hummingbird.
His grandchildren said the hummingbird was a sign that “Papa is in heaven.”
John D'Anna is a reporter on The Arizona Republic/azcentral.com storytelling team. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @azgreenday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gabby Giffords shooting: Judge John Roll among 6 killed near Tucson