After a four-year battle with a debilitating neuromuscular disease, former Weld District Court Chief Judge Roger Klein died last weekend.
Klein, 72, died quietly at his home Saturday in Denver, with his family at his side.
“He was a very remarkable man,” his son, Chris Klein, 42, said. “He always had a very strong sense of integrity. Sometimes people might try to find ways around the rules, but he not only wanted to follow the rules but the intent behind them, and not play games.”
Klein retired from the bench in 2009 as Weld’s chief judge, a position he’d held for six years, capping off a 40-year law career.
A series of misdiagnoses of what family and doctors eventually believed was ALS, more commonly referred to as Lou Gherig’s disease, prompted his retirement and a move to Denver to be closer to his son and his medical care.
“This is a disease in which you remain extremely sharp cognitively, and he was,” his son said. “He was totally mentally there to the end. But in the end, he was a quadriplegic.”
For a man who was an avid runner and had run six marathons — including the New York and Boston races — in his lifetime, he ended his days strolling outside in a power wheelchair with his wife of 43 years, Emi. He also loved gardening.
Klein started his law career in 1970 as a public defender in Sterling. He moved to the public defender’s office in Greeley in 1972, and started his own practice in 1974, doing mostly family law. He was appointed in 1995 as a judge in Weld District Court and, in 2003, he moved up to chief judge.
“We’re just deeply saddened by his passing,” said Weld District Court Administrator Karen Salaz. “He was quite a leader for us. He was a soft-spoken judge who could accomplish so much through using his voice and words.”
Klein presided over two of most televised and watched criminal trials in a decade in Weld County.
He presided over the trial of Shawna Nelson, who was convicted of killing the wife of her lover, a Greeley police officer at the time. It was a case that drew national attention. Klein sentenced her to life in prison in 2008.
Klein’s most notorious case involved the trial of Renee Polreis in 1997, two years after being appointed to the bench. Polreis was charged with killing her 2-year-old Russian-adopted son, prompting coverage from all over the world.
He sentenced her to 22 years in prison after her conviction and, a couple of years later, Klein reduced that to 18 years. She is now on parole in northern Colorado.
Former Weld County District Attorney Al Dominguez said the Polreis case was the only one in which Klein made him mad, but only for a brief moment in the middle of the trial — a little thing involving credentials of an expert witness. Dominguez practiced alongside Klein for years, when they were both in private practice in Greeley.
“I remember him fondly. I knew him as a lawyer as well as a judge. I did a number of divorces against him,” Dominguez said. “He was always very good to go against. He was forthright and upfront, and he didn’t play any games. He just got the job done.”
Weld District Court Judge Marcelo Kopcow was a young prosecutor when Klein presided over Division 4 of the courthouse. He tried many cases in front of him.
“He was remarkable in the sense that he was very patient with young lawyers, and lawyers in general,” Kopcow said. “As a young lawyer, he was patient. He really went out of his way to make sure people had access to courts and to justice, and I think he really made his best effort to be as fair and impartial as possible. He cared about the law and judicial system.”
Klein is survived by his wife, Emi; his son, Chris, and daughter Anne, her husband and their two sons.
Services will be scheduled in February in Greeley, his son said.