VALLEY, Minn. - His last night behind bars, Roland Amundson was
sitting in the prison library when he felt the large shadow of someone
standing over him. He looked up to see the inmate others feared
the most, a former motorcycle gang leader who had been convicted
of killing a man in a bar fight - a murder so violent the court
doubled the standard sentence.
Roland Amundson at a halfway house in Golden Valley, Minn., where
he will live until he is a free man. The man wanted to talk.
Mr. Amundson had been the appellate judge who upheld that unusually
strict sentence. Now, he was just a fellow prisoner, inmate No.
209383. "He asked if I remembered him," Mr. Amundson recalled
in an interview in December. "He wanted me to know he didn't
hold any hard feelings against me."
encounter in October, Mr. Amundson said, was one of a dozen times
in his three and a half years in prison that he was confronted by
inmates whose sentences he had ordered or upheld in 15 years as
a judge. Those experiences and Mr. Amundson's other dealings as
a convicted felon - at his sentencing, prosecutors turned the words
of his rulings against him to justify a longer term - have shaken
the world view of a man who, from the bench, thought he knew all
there was to know about crime and punishment.
2001, Mr. Amundson, who is 56, was a highly regarded judge who sat
on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the state's second-highest court.
Mentioned in legal circles as a likely nominee to the State Supreme
Court, he was a popular public speaker, served on charitable boards
in Minneapolis, and seemed to know everyone. Colleagues described
him as brilliant and charming.
he was caught taking $400,000 from a trust fund he oversaw for a
woman with the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, money he spent on
marble floors and a piano for his house as well as model trains,
sculpture and china service for 80, all bought on eBay.
serving the last months of his sentence in a halfway house here,
Mr. Amundson is engaged in an uneasy and humbling round of self-reflection,
examining the criminal justice system from a rare two-sided perspective
while busying himself with a menial vocation: shoveling snow and
taking orders to the printer for a sewing machine company he represented
long ago as a lawyer.
can say they have no idea what's going on in prison," Mr. Amundson
said from a worn couch in the halfway house. "But if you know
what's going on and you are still callous, God help you. If you
are part of the system that does the things the system can do, God
Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the New York State Court
of Appeals who pleaded guilty in a harassment case and spent 13
months in federal prison in the early 1990's, Mr. Amundson belongs
to a small group of distinguished jurists undone by the laws they
had been sworn to uphold, who later came to claim redemption in
Mr. Amundson's case, it is a transformation that some people he
hurt find unconvincing. "I don't think he feels like he did
anything wrong," said Karen Dove, a guardian for Mr. Amundson's
say they are skeptical that Mr. Amundson has learned much in prison;
he has continued, they say, to expect special treatment. At one
point, he tried to get into a boot camp program that would have
halved his sentence; prosecutors blocked the move, saying it was
intended for inmates with drug problems or illiteracy.
recently, Mr. Amundson raised eyebrows with a Christmas card featuring
an unshackled ball and chain. It included quotes from Dostoyevsky
and Solzhenitsyn about the redemptive value of prison, as well as
a picture of Mr. Amundson with his four young sons - reminding some
of his critics of how many lives he has hurt.
was another indication that he hasn't seen the light," Ms.
relentlessly cheerful - "Come into my chambers," he greeted
a visitor, his arm surveying his small cubicle with a leather chair
jammed into the corner at the sewing company in nearby Eden Prairie
- Mr. Amundson said he wants to use his experience to promote the
importance of rehabilitation in prison.
a boom in prison populations, there are now a record number of ex-felons
getting out of prison each year - about 640,000 a year, up about
40 percent over the last decade - and more than half of them end
up back there. Across the country, officials are experimenting with
ways to smooth re-entry and prevent recidivism, with drug treatment
or job training.
Amundson could get out 23 months early, in April, because of good
behavior. He has surrendered his law license, and with few prospects
for the future, says he wants to create homes for men coming out
of prison, giving them a place to live and help with other hurdles
to successful re-entry.
a judge, Mr. Amundson says he had not thought about sentencing beyond
his court; he has come to see its consequences from fellow inmates.
"I knew the era of rehabilitation was over, but I had no idea
we had reduced it to just warehousing, and I don't think most judges
do," he said.
Mr. Amundson recalled one man he met in prison who had been convicted
of killing his parents after they abused him. At 18, he was sentenced
to 18 years.
34, he is completely incapable of living in society," Mr. Amundson
said. "He's been raised by corrections officers."
Amundson, who is openly gay, continues to struggle with the court
system in a custody battle with his former partner over their four
adopted sons from Russia. He grew bitter about prison restrictions
on communicating with the boys. What determines successful re-entry
into society, he said, is family support.
"If there is any collection of men who need fathers more than
the men in prison, I don't know it," he said. "You're
dealing with men who need fathers and yet you're decimating their
relationships with their children."
the time he began adopting children in 1998, Mr. Amundson had been
stealing for at least three years. He had set up a trust in the
early 1990's for the mentally retarded daughter of a wealthy beer
distributor he knew from his days representing the state's beer
wholesalers. When the man died, Mr. Amundson became sole trustee.
recalls putting his hand in his desk drawer and pulling out the
first of 85 checks he forged. "It was like somebody else was
doing it," he said.
Ms. Dove and another woman who worked for the retarded woman, now
in her 30's, became suspicious in 2001 when they asked Mr. Amundson
for money for a new roof on the woman's house, and he said the trust
was empty. It had been worth more than $600,000 when the father's
estate was settled seven years earlier.
retrospect, Mr. Amundson says he wanted to be caught.
was tired of being Rolly Amundson, tired of being at everybody's
beck and call, just tired," he said. "This was my vehicle
to end it all."
Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney, saw it in simpler terms.
"I believe he was greedy and wanted to live a lifestyle that
he didn't have the money to live," she said in December.
Amundson resigned as a judge and agreed to plead guilty, but he
haggled over sentencing, she said, trying to avoid prison time.
He sought to mitigate his sentence in 2002 by arguing that he suffered
from bipolar disorder, but prosecutors pointed out that he had written
an opinion rejecting psychological factors as mitigating. They sought
a sentence 12 months longer than the guidelines recommended; Judge
Amundson himself, they noted, had written opinions upholding extended
sentences in cases where the victim was particularly vulnerable.
judge sentenced Mr. Amundson to 69 months, as prosecutors requested,
saying he had been drunk on power, and had acted not out of depression
but out of a sense of entitlement. Mr. Amundson called in a long
line of prominent witnesses - his pastor, a former Miss America,
a former ambassador - to argue against a harsh sentence.
her part, Ms. Klobuchar had what she recalled as "her guardian
angels," two black defendants who happened onto the courtroom
after they appeared in court on drug charges, and sat in the front
row expressing their outrage as Mr. Amundson's friends testified.
don't think he should be treated any differently than the people
that have walked through his own courtroom," she said.