From AJC archives: Down-to-earth jurist Rowland Barnes enjoyed life

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 12, 2005.

Rowland Barnes stood out among the judges of Fulton County Superior Court.

Like other jurists, he wrestled with questions of life and liberty and bitter civil disputes, but he showed colleagues a frivolous, fun-loving side. The judge acted in skits that poked fun at the law. He also joked that his court reporter so wowed jurors with her baking that few leftovers remained for him.

In recent months, Barnes presided over two particularly high-profile cases. He handled the vehicular homicide case against Thrashers star Dany Heatley and allowed a woman accused of killing her newborn to undergo medical sterilization rather than go to prison.

Despite the gravity of his job, friends said the judge never took himself too seriously.

"If you look at what most people's perception of what a judge is, it's this aloof person who knows more than everyone else and looks down on you, " said Lee Sexton, a defense attorney and old friend. "Rowland was just the opposite of that. He was the people's judge."

Friday's fatal shooting of Barnes in his downtown Atlanta courtroom stunned the judge's friends and relatives and cast a pall over metro Atlanta's legal community.

"He was not only a good judge, " said attorney Kim Dymecki. "He was a good person."

While some judges project a haughty, regal air, lawyers knew Barnes as an approachable jurist with a keen sense of humor.

He was one of the few judges to appear regularly in theatrical performances of the Atlanta Bar Association in which lawyers poke fun at themselves and their profession. Colleagues said the judge sang and danced and gravitated to goofy roles, playing the character Cletus in Judge Bumpkin's courtroom, for example, in "The Phantom of the Courtroom" in 2002.

"He was always enjoying life and looking for some way to enjoy life, " said Fulton Juvenile Court Judge Sanford Jones, an old friend who presided at the 1996 wedding of Barnes, 64, and his wife, Claudia.

Barnes is survived by his wife, two brothers, two daughters and four stepchildren, Jones said.

Barnes often invited friends and co-workers to his office for lunches peppered with laughter. He would grab a newspaper and talk about a story, asking his partners to guess if it was in the paper or if he was making it up.

His appreciation for practical jokes once inspired Sexton to interrupt Barnes during a speech to give him a cake and sing "Happy Birthday." Some judges would have been offended, Sexton said, but Barnes loved it.

On the bench, Barnes took pains to put witnesses, victims and defendants at ease, colleagues said.

"He was one of the most gentle people I've ever known, " said Superior Court Judge John J. Goger. "He had a wonderful common sense."

'Like a nightmare'

A 1972 graduate of Emory Law School, Barnes and other lawyers fell into a routine of retiring to a Mexican restaurant most Friday evenings to talk shop over margaritas, a tradition he continued even after becoming a city judge in College Park, Hapeville and Fairburn. Barnes was a Fulton County magistrate when he met his wife at the courthouse, where she still works as another judge's administrative assistant.

Former Gov. Zell Miller, who named Barnes to Fulton County Superior Court in 1998, said the judge "was one of my proudest appointments. . . . All of the lawyers, on either side, really like appearing before him because they knew they'd get a fair shake."

Barnes earned high marks from relatives of Heatley, the Atlanta Thrashers hockey player charged in the death of teammate Dan Snyder. After Heatley pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, Barnes declined to imprison him, partly at the request of Snyder's relatives.

"I had a lot of respect for the judge and I'm very sad for the family --- all of the families, the court reporter and the security guard, " Heatley's mother, Karin, said Friday from her home in Calgary, Alberta. "It's like a nightmare."

On Friday morning, the judge reported to his chambers to prepare for the trial of a man facing rape and other charges. Kiley, his 26-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, called to chat.

"It was daddy's little girl just calling daddy, " Sexton said.

Soon afterward, police say, the man on trial overpowered a deputy, seized her gun and headed for Barnes' courtroom. News reached the judge's daughter, an aspiring lawyer, an hour or so after her phone call.

"She came running into my office. It just broke my heart, " Sexton said. "She's not doing well at all, of course. She's just lost her father. She's absolutely devastated."

Sexton and others spent hours trying to console the young woman.

Neighbors stunned

Friends said Kiley and the judge's wife, Claudia, were too distraught to talk with reporters.

In Barnes' College Park neighborhood, stunned residents described him as a man who did his own yard work and often lent a hand or offered advice. The neighborhood was mostly white when Jessie Howard, who is black, moved in 18 years ago.

"He was one of the only people who came across to talk to me, and to welcome me to his home, " Howard said.

Bill Reilly, chief of staff at the state Department of Juvenile Justice, recalled eating 10-cent shrimp with Barnes near the judge's beach house on the North Carolina Outer Banks. He planned to stop by the courthouse last week to visit Barnes. "I got a phone call and had to do something else, " he said. "Now I wish I'd gone."