Roll, 63, the chief federal judge for all of Arizona, was the target of hundreds of threats two years ago after he allowed 16 undocumented Mexican immigrants to go forward with a $32 million lawsuit against rancher Roger Barnett, who has been called “one of the most prominent … vigilantes” in southern Arizona.
Roll’s death has not been linked to the Barnett lawsuit, and the judge appears not to have been a target in Saturday’s massacre. According to television reports, Roll happened to live a couple of blocks away from the Tucson supermarket where Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet with voters and decided to drop by to say hello.
But the Barnett case and its repercussions for Roll and his family highlight the increasing dangers faced by public officials as well as immigrants in Arizona’s vitriolic and volatile political climate.
Outrage Over Civil Rights Lawsuit
In the 2009 case, immigrants accused Barnett of violating their civil rights and falsely imprisoning them when he caught them trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near Douglas, Ariz., in March 2004.
According to lawyers with the Mexican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which represented the immigrants, Barnett threatened to turn his dog loose on the five women and 11 men and held them at gunpoint, saying he would shoot anyone who tried to escape.
Barnett's attorney disputed the accusations and argued that the suit should be thrown out in part because illegal immigrants did not have the same rights as U.S. citizens.
But Roll—a former prosecutor appointed to the federal bench by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 —ruled that there was sufficient evidence to allow the case to proceed to trial in February 2009.
200 Calls in One Afternoon
Conservatives were livid, and radio talk shows stoked the controversy over Roll’s ruling. In one afternoon, Roll logged more than 200 phone calls, the Arizona Republic reported at the time. Callers threatened the judge and his family and posted personal information about Roll online.
“They said, 'We should kill him. He should be dead,' " U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said.
Roll and his wife were given 24-hour protection for about a month, with U.S. marshals guarding his home, screening his mail and escorting him to court, to the gym and even to Mass.
"It was unnerving and invasive. . . . By its nature it has to be," Roll told the Republic, adding that his family had been encouraged to live their lives as normally as possible. Eventually, Roll said, four men were identified as the main threat makers.
The Marshals Service reportedly recommended that he not press charges, and Roll took their advice, he said.
10-Year Campaign to Stop Illegal Crossings
Barnett and his family, who had waged a 10-year campaign to stop illegal immigrants from using their 22,000-acre Cross Rail Ranch on the U.S.-Mexican border as their crossing point, were hailed as heroes by anti-immigrant groups and conservative news organizations.
According to the conservative-leaning Washington Times, Barnett began rounding up illegal immigrants and turning them over to the U.S. Border Patrol in 1998. He complained that illegal immigrants were destroying his property, killing his calves and even breaking into his home.
Barnett told the Times that some trails on his ranch used by illegal crossers were littered with trash 10 inches deep, including human waste, toilet paper, soiled diapers, cigarette packs, clothes, backpacks, and —he alleged—aluminum foil that he claimed was used by immigrant smugglers to pack drugs.
According to the Times, Barnett spent $30,000 on electronic sensors for the ranch and searched for immigrants “in a pickup truck, dressed in a green shirt and camouflage hat, with his handgun and rifle, high-powered binoculars and a walkie-talkie.”
Barnett claimed to have captured some 12,000 illegal immigrants over the years.
In its lawsuit, MALDEF alleged that Barnett approached the group of 16 immigrants—who hailed mainly from Michoacan, Mexico—as they crossed his property, brandishing a gun and threatening them in English and Spanish. At one point, the lawsuit alleged, Barnett's dog growled at several of the women and he yelled at them in Spanish, "My dog is hungry and he's hungry for buttocks."
Also named in the suit were Barnett's wife, his brother Donald, and Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever.
It was not the first time Barnett’s actions resulted in a lawsuit. In 2006, in a case brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a jury ordered Barnett to pay $98,750 to a family of Mexican-Americans—including two small girls—whom he terrorized after he found them hunting on his ranch. That incident also occurred in 2004.
In the End, Just $77,000
In the end, however, the rancher largely prevailed against MALDEF. The cases against Barnett’s wife and brother were thrown out and the immigrants were awarded a total of just $77,000.
As a federal judge, Roll handled a wide variety of cases, though drug smuggling and illegal immigration dominate the court’s criminal caseload.
In the 1990s, he was among several federal judges who ruled that the Brady gun law's requirement for a records check by local authorities violated the U.S. Constitution.
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