A federal appeals court today upheld a jury's verdict in an immigration-related suit that prompted death threats against the late Chief Judge John Roll of Arizona, who presided over the trial.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling comes nearly a month after Roll was fatally shot in a Tucson parking lot. The alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, remains in custody on federal charges that include the attempted assassination of a member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was critically wounded in the gunfire.
The appeals court refused to overturn rulings Roll made during the litigation in Tucson federal district court. Following an eight-day trial with some 20 witnesses, a jury in 2009 found in favor of four plaintiffs who claimed a rancher named Roger Barnett assaulted them on public land on the border of Arizona and Mexico.
The appeals court upheld the jury’s verdict in favor of four of the plaintiffs on their claims for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Click here for the court's ruling.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs called Barnett a “vigilante” who held the group of unarmed immigrants captive. The jury awarded a total of $73,352 in compensatory, punitive and nominal damages, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed suit on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Senior Judge David Thompson, Judge Barry Silverman and Senior Judge Robert Cowen of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, sitting by designation, presided over the appellate hearing on Dec. 8 in San Francisco.
Tucson solo practitioner John Kaufmann argued for Barnett, who attended the hearing. David Urias of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Ives & Duncan, in Albuquerque, represented the plaintiffs.
“The jury heard compelling testimony of the distress that was endured by these plaintiffs when they were held at gunpoint by Roger Barnett with a loaded .40-caliber handgun,” Urias said in court. “The jury heard testimony about he berated them with racial slurs and obscenities. The jury heard testimony about how he pointed his gun at the heads of each of these appellees. The jury heard all this evidence.”
The appeals court upheld Roll’s decision not to issue a self-defense instruction to the jury, saying that Barnett conceded on the stand that none of the plaintiffs were armed or threatened him.
Roll, the appeals court said, was correct in denying Barnett’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The plaintiffs testified about anxiety, depression and insomnia stemming from Barnett’s action, the court noted in its ruling. An expert diagnosed three of the four plaintiffs with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Upon review, we conclude that there is substantial evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the appellees suffered severe emotional distress,” the appeals court said.
Nina Perales, who was promoted today to litigation director for MALDEF, praised Roll’s handling of the suit amid the controversy surrounding the case. Roll told the Arizona Republic newspaper in 2009 about death threats he received, saying he and his wife had been followed by a security detail for a month.
“We are pleased to have been able to preserve a ruling in a case over which he presided so fairly and ably,” Perales said in an interview.
Roll, 63, had been chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona since 2006. He was appointed to the federal bench in 1991.