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'John was prepared'

Courts | But federal benches face more crucial shortages than ever after loss of Tucson shooting victim judge John Roll

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

Usually on Saturday mornings, District of Arizona Chief Judge John Roll, 63, would go to Mass, then return home to vacuum the carpet and mop the floors for his wife, Maureen.

On Saturday, Jan. 8, Roll went to Mass, as usual, and then just before 10 a.m., he stopped by a local Safeway grocery store to greet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was holding an event for constituents there. She had pushed for Roll's district to be declared a judicial emergency because of its heavy case­load. But as he stood near the congresswoman outside the store, a gunman walked up and shot Giffords through the head at close range. Then the gunman turned on the crowd with his semiautomatic, sending bullets into bodies, windows, and bottles of 7-Up inside the store.

As the bullets flew, Roll pushed one of Giffords' staffers, Ron Barber, 65, under a table set up for Giffords' event, according to law enforcement who watched surveillance footage of the shooting. Covering Barber's injured body, Roll ducked under the table as well, leaving his back exposed to the gunman, who shot and killed him. Barber was shot three times, but survived, and law enforcement say Roll may have saved his life. Days later, Barber went directly from the hospital to Roll's funeral. Another victim also sacrificed himself: Dorwan Stoddard, 76, died shielding his wife Mavy.

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Roll was one of six who died-law enforcement officials believe that Giffords was the target of assassination, not him. Thirteen were injured. Giffords has survived, making such stunning progress in regaining motor skills that she was released to a rehabilitation center two-and-a-half weeks after being shot through the left side of her brain.

"Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned, as it was on Saturday morning," President Obama said at the memorial service for the victims on Jan. 12. "Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question of what, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen?"

From accounts of a close friend and other colleagues, Roll was a shrewd, compassionate judge, and a devoted Christian. He began his almost 40 years in public service as a state and federal prosecutor, then he became a state judge in 1987. President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the federal bench in 1991, and he rose to become chief judge of the district in 2006.

He leaves behind his wife Maureen, with whom he was about to celebrate his 41st wedding anniversary, three sons, and five grandchildren. He loved Maureen dearly and would take breakfast to her in bed, according to his close friend, Arizona District Judge James Teilborg. Maureen has done crisis pregnancy counseling with Tucson Catholic Charities over the years, and the family asked for memorial contributions to be sent to, among other places, Merilac Lodge, a Catholic home in Tucson for pregnant and parenting teenagers.

On Jan. 14, 1,700 mourners packed out St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church for Roll's funeral while several hundred more stood outside. Teilborg, a Clinton appointee, delivered a eulogy to an audience that included former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who initially recommended Roll for the federal bench. The funeral was closed to the media, but Teilborg shared his eulogy with WORLD.

"None of us in this church was prepared for what happened at that horrific moment last Saturday," Teilborg said. "But John was prepared. He was prepared because he knew with complete assurance where he would spend eternity."

The two became close friends because of their shared faith, even though Roll was Catholic and Teilborg is Protestant. "That was a distinction that never entered into our relationship. We both had the same source of immutable and eternal truth in the Scriptures," Teilborg told me. Teilborg used to appear as an attorney before Roll, about a decade before he became a judge in 2000. Then Roll came to his investiture ceremony and when Teilborg introduced one of his mentors, a Bible teacher who he said had "introduced me to the master potter," that grabbed Roll's attention.

Though Roll served in Tucson and Teilborg served in Phoenix, over the years they began talking almost daily on the phone. "He flattered me by seeking my advice on court matters rather regularly," Teilborg told me. "I always thought the fact that he sought my advice was something that I wasn't up to giving. He was a veteran judge and I was a relatively junior judge. Somehow he thought I had something to offer." Teilborg said often Roll would share something from the Bible that he had read earlier in the day. "He didn't read the Bible out of some ritualistic habit or because of its wonderful prose. For John it was spiritual food," Teilborg said in his eulogy.

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