Nearly every Sunday for 10 years, Peter Donaldson would shake the hand of the distinguished-looking man sitting behind him at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish and say, "Peace be with you."

Donaldson thought John M. Roll, who also served as a lector and usher at the church, was a doctor.

He learned Roll was a federal judge just a few months before Jan. 8, 2011, when Roll was slain outside a Foothills grocery store along with Gabe Zimmerman, 30, Dorothy Jean "Dot" Morris, 76, Phyllis Schneck, 79, Dorwan "Dory" Stoddard, 76, and Christina-Taylor Green, 9.

Donaldson, a retired teacher, was one of about 400 people who gathered at the Tucson Music Hall Friday for a special U.S. District Court session to honor Roll.

"I'm here today because I knew the judge and I loved him," Donaldson said. "He was a wonderful man."

Donaldson wasn't alone in his praise of Roll, a 63-year-old married father of three and grandfather of five.

In between introducing the other speakers at the event, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Roslyn Silver read excerpts of letters written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

O'Connor recalled Roll's "tireless commitment to duty" and his knack for projecting "genuine warmth." DeConcini recalled teasing Roll for his propensity for stopping to talk to everyone. He would ask Roll if he was running for public office and Roll would laugh and say he'd leave that for people smarter than he. Roberts wrote that Roll had the ability to leave a mark wherever he went, even "sandlots."

Roll, a UA College of Law graduate, worked as a state and federal prosecutor before being appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, based in Tucson, in 1987. In 1991, Roll was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush, and he became chief judge of the District of Arizona in 2006.

Silver and fellow U.S. District Judges Robert Broomfield, Jennifer Zipps and Raner Collins all described Roll as a man of "exceptionally good character" who was humble, an excellent listener, genuinely caring and able to inspire those around him to do their best.

Michael Waits went to work as Roll's law clerk immediately out of law school in 2009. He described Roll as a a deeply compassionate man who made a young, overwhelmed lawyer feel as though he were an essential part of his courtroom family.

Zipps told the crowd Roll valued everyone who worked within the criminal justice system - clerks, interpreters, deputy U.S. marshals, Pretrial Services officers, probation officers and others. And while he presided over a remarkable 263 trials while a U.S. District Court judge and sentenced more than 1,900 people during his last year alone, he would be the last person to talk about his accomplishments, she said.

As a newly appointed judge, Zipps said, Roll left a "clear path for new judges to follow."

Roll "never met anyone he didn't feel concern for or had an interest in," no matter their station in life, Collins said.

Collins recalled how he once saw Roll, then a prosecutor, put a young rape victim back on the stand to rebut the shaky testimony of a suspected rapist who told the jury the sex was consensual.

When he questioned Roll as to why he would do that, Collins said he realized Roll did it not to help his case but to help the victim. Roll was at the Congress on Your Corner event on Jan. 8, 2011, because he was "being John," Collins said.

He wanted to thank U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for writing a letter of support for him. Because of extreme caseloads, Roll had been trying to get an extension of the time frame in which felony cases must take place.

Roll would not have been comfortable letting the opportunity to thank Giffords personally go by, Collins said.

Fern Bomchill, Federal Bar Association National President, announced at the end of the session a "larger-than-life" bronze bust of Roll will become a permanent memorial at the U.S. District Court in Tucson later this year.

In June, ground was broken in Yuma for a new federal courthouse that will be named for Roll.

On StarNet: Read the stories of the shooting we published Jan. 9, 2011, at


In our eight-page special section, people affected by the Jan. 8 shootings share acts of kindness that helped them get through the past year. Also, how the tragedy changed Tucson, plus live coverage of anniversary events.

Giffords, in Tucson, honors Zimmerman

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords arrived in Tucson on Friday to begin commemorating the anniversary of the shooting that killed six people and left her and 12 others wounded.

Giffords' staff posted a photo on her Facebook page Friday of her taking part in a ceremony at her Tucson office honoring slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman. She will appear at a candlelight vigil Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Arizona Mall to mark the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting.

- Arizona Daily Star

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or

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