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Swartz trial: Prosecutors begin laying out case against BP agent

Following opening arguments Wednesday, prosecutors began laying out their case against the Border Patrol agent who faces voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges for shooting and killing a Mexican teenager in 2012.

Standing from behind the 22-foot high steel "bollard" fence, which rests on a 14-foot-high embankment, Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz fired 16 shots in 34 seconds in three successive volleys, emptying the magazine of his weapon and reloading to fire three more shots, hitting 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez 10 times in the back and the head. 

Prosecutors argued on Wednesday that Swartz acted without justification, and abandoned his training when he fired on the teen. Swartz, said Wallace Kleindienst, assistant U.S. Attorney, was a "crack shot" who knew exactly where each round would go, and from his position in the United States, shooting down at Elena Rodriguez on October 10, 2012 was like "shooting fish in a barrel." 

However, Swartz's defense attorney Sean Chapman argued that Swartz was following his training, which said that the rocks or rubble thrown by the teen were "deadly weapons" and that Swartz acted "in a split-second" during a chaotic situation in a dangerous area, to defend himself and another agent, as well as Nogales police officer. 

The case hinges on whether Swartz's first volley killed the teenager outright, or his first volley seriously wounded the teen, and his second and third volleys were aimed at the teen while he was lying prone, but still alive. 

Earlier this year, Swartz was tried for second-degree murder, but after four days of deliberation, jurors announced on April 23 that while they would acquit the agent on the charge of second-degree murder, they remained deadlocked on the charges of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

In May, federal prosecutors announced that they would pursue a new trial on the two lower charges. 

The government, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Sue Feldmeier, brought two reporters to the stand as the second trial got underway this week to testify what they saw that night in 2012. 

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Arturo Javier Gonzalez-Lopez, a reporter for El Dario Sonora, a newspaper based in Nogales, Sonora, said that he heard about the incident on a police scanner, and immediately headed to the corner of Calle Internacional and Ingenerios. The newspaper reporter immediately took several images of the scene, which were used to establish the boy's position, slumped along the sidewalk parallel to Calle Internacional. 

One of the reporter's photos was published in the newspaper the next day. 

Feldmeier also brought up Cesar Barron, a radio reporter with XENY, who was in the U.S. shopping and was told by a friend waiting in line at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, about 700 yards away, that she heard the shots. Barron was in the U.S., but immediately crossed into Mexico and began taking video and photographs of the scene, which showed the large number of Mexican officials who came to secure the scene and later began to collect evidence. 

During his opening arguments, Chapman accused Mexican authorities of botching their investigation, and said that not only did Mexican police officers take things from the scene, but that one kicked the body, he said. 

Both Barron and Mexican police officer Juan Pablo Espinoza-Armenta disputed this idea. 

Chapman cross-examined Barron and tried to get the reporter to explain how Mexican officials collected evidence and how Elena Rodriguez's autopsy was done, an effort complicated by the need to translate between the lawyers and the Mexican witnesses. 

Prosecutors also asked Roberto Tapia to take the stand. As the Mexican prosecutor, Tapia was in charge of the scene on that side of the border, and he explained how officials used bits of stucco to mark bullet fragments that were at the scene near Elena Rodriguez's body. 

On Thursday morning, Tapia was cross-examined by Chapman. 

The government also called photographer and criminologist Blas Cota Mendez to review evidence collection, and began the testimony of Dr. Absalon Madrigal Godinez, one of the medical examiners who performed the autopsy. 

During the first trial, prosecutors called both medical examiners to the stand, however, during a motion hearing, the defense complained that prosecutors were only calling one of the examiners, and attempted to have the autopsy held back from the jury. 

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Prosecutors argued that the document should be submitted as a "business record," a recommendation that Judge Raner C. Collins agreed with on Wednesday over the defense's objections. 

Court was not held on Friday, instead, the trial will start again on Monday, October 29 at 9:30 a.m. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The scene where 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez died from a spot in Arizona around where Lonnie Swartz was standing when he fired his weapon, emptying one magazine and firing three rounds from another, sending 10 rounds into the boy's back and head.

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