When he was 13 years old, Justice Carlos Samour Jr.’s family fled from El Salvador to the United States to escape a civil war and political turmoil. The family of 14—12 children, mother, and father—applied for vacation visas, packed what they could into an oversized van, and started driving to Colorado, where extended family lived.
Samour BS ’87 and his family later obtained their permanent residence and eventually applied for and attained citizenship. They settled in the Front Range, where Samour attended Columbine High School in Littleton and went on to earn a psychology degree from CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a law degree from the University of Denver. Along the way, he formed invaluable relationships with teachers, mentors, and professors—one of his favorites still works at CU Denver some 30 years later.
Samour’s education, he said, changed his life.
On Dec. 12, Samour, who now serves as a Colorado Supreme Court justice, delivered the keynote speech at CU Denver’s second virtual 2020 commencement ceremony. University Events proposed to the graduates three alumni keynote speech options for the role, and Samour was the most popular. “We really wanted to return some decision-making power to the graduates to help design their special event,” said Kelly Mason, assistant director of University Events.
Samour’s name is well-known in Denver legal circles and local media. He served as the judge in the 2015 trial of the Aurora theater shooter, who was found guilty of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. The case, Samour said, was the greatest career challenge he’s experienced. To ensure a just outcome, he relied on the law and the expertise of his staff.
He’s grateful that the attorneys exhibited great professionalism during the trial, he said, adding, “I wanted to make sure that everyone’s rights were respected, and that both the defendant and victims were able to receive a fair trial. It was also important to me that the public had access to the case and the trial.” Samour sentenced the defendant to 12 life sentences without the possibility of parole, and 3,000-plus years in prison.
“It literally has taken a village”
Samour always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, just like his father. When he was a young boy in El Salvador, he would try on his father’s dress coats and fancy ties and stand pridefully in front of the mirror. “I was trying to look how he looked,” Samour recalled. At his father’s office, which was next door to their home, Samour would often help with errands, note-taking, and deliveries. When his father agreed to let him watch his first trial at the age of 13, Samour was fascinated by the dynamics of the courtroom. “It just looked like such a cool job,” Samour said. “I knew that was where I wanted to be.”
Life changed drastically for Samour’s family when they arrived in Colorado. “My parents lost a lot of their savings, and we had to leave most of our possessions behind,” he shared candidly during his keynote speech. “We brought with us only what we could fit in the van we were traveling in. And once we got here, my parents had to start over.”
Samour’s mother stayed home with the kids. His father, who was a lawyer and judge in El Salvador, took a job as a school bus driver because he didn’t speak English and couldn’t practice law in Colorado. While Samour’s parents couldn’t buy him a car or a laptop, he said, they gave him the invaluable gift of unwavering support and strong encouragement to follow his dreams.
He started off studying political science at CU Denver, but, feeling unfulfilled by the courses, decided to take an intro to psychology course taught by Peter Kaplan, PhD, who still serves as a professor and chair of the Psychology Department. “I enjoyed his classes and liked his style. He made it so interesting and exciting,” Samour said. “I still use some of what I learned in psychology today.” Plus, he figured a psychology degree was a safe fallback if law school didn’t work out.
Kaplan remembers Samour. He had just started teaching at CU Denver—his first real academic job. “He epitomized the kind of students who attend CU Denver: astute, mature beyond their years, and serious about their education. Students like Carlos provided me with great motivation,” Kaplan said. “All these years later, to have Justice Samour even remember, let alone praise my teaching, is a great honor for me. And to hear that he still uses some of what he learned in our course, likely held in the old Tramway Building auditorium, will motivate me when I teach Introductory Psychology (remotely) in the spring 2021 semester.”
Looking back on the past 30 years as a lawyer, judge, and state Supreme Court justice, Samour couldn’t have made it without the support of his family, mentors, professors, and teachers.
“It literally has taken a village,” he said.