A Border Legacy

Jan 17th, 2011 | By Michel Marizco | Category: General News, Organized Crime
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THE BORDER REPORT

TUCSON – When a gunman killed six people last Saturday in Tucson, he took the life of one of the hardest working judges along the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal Judge John Roll was truly impartial, even in a time when rhetoric dominates much of the politics of the border region. Those who worked in his courtroom say that Tucson and the southwest lost what was very much a border judge.

Produced for KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk. Click to listen.

A line of cars streamed down the road. Hundreds of people walked somberly into the church to pay their respects to Judge John Roll. The faces were somber and tearful.

Those who knew the judge say he died working for the betterment of a major border district. He’d gone to see Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to say hi. And to TALK about his plans for the future of the busiest immigration corridor along the border.

Now, some wonder about the future of the federal courts in southern Arizona.

Tony Coulson is a recently retired Drug Enforcement administrator in Tucson. He’s known the judge since 1983.

“That’s one of the questions that everyone will have. But I know, everyone’s got a big hole in their heart now and I think that the judges will find an answer in some form or fashion,” Coulson said. “But it’s going to be a difficult challenge for them.”

Roll presided over some of the biggest cases along the Mexico border, from the Sinaloa Cartel to illegal immigration.

Walter Nash has practiced law in Tucson for 40 years and defended against Roll when the judge was a federal prosecutor in a massive marijuana smuggling case.

“I represented one of the lead defendants and John was the United States attorney who tried it. I don’t want to talk about the result because it wasn’t good for me,” Nash said, smiling.

One of the biggest cases Nash defended before Roll is still talked about to this day. Locals call it the Naco drug tunnel, one that ran from Sonora, Mexico into Arizona. About 20 tons of cocaine had already crossed through when it was found in the late nineties.

“He pushed things but at the same time, he let lawyers lawyer. He gave us an extremely fair series of trials,” Nash said.

Shortly before he was murdered, Roll declared a judicial emergency in Tucson, trying to slow the ever growing number of felony trials brought before his court.

“The volume of cases that we see here has gone up dramatically,” Nash said. “It has crowded the dockets; which is one of the reasons Judge Roll was working so hard to get more judges, but also to work on suspending the speedy trial rules because we needed more time to get people to trial.”

Even with 800 or more cases a year, Roll never turned down a case.

Again, Tony Coulson:

“He would tell me that our job was to bring people to justice. What justice did wasn’t our responsibility nor could we make that decision.”

Longtime friend Kathy Barber was leaving a church service held for the judge Thursday night in Tucson.

“I knew John when he was in college. He and his wife were married. and he stood up for me and my ex-husband. He was best man at our wedding.”

The funeral ended at noon on Friday. The crowd left the church in silence.

Coulson was left to wonder about Roll’s death.

“One of those exceptional people that … I don’t know why God took him.”

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