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No More Deaths trial: Warren waits after case sent to jury

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No More Deaths trial: Warren waits after case sent to jury

  • Scott Warren waiting while the jury deliberated Friday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comScott Warren waiting while the jury deliberated Friday.
  • Scott Warren during a ceremony in August 2018 in Ajo, Ariz.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comScott Warren during a ceremony in August 2018 in Ajo, Ariz.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys made their closing arguments in the Scott Warren trial Friday, sending the felony case against the humanitarian aid volunteer to a jury, which deliberated all afternoon without reaching a verdict.

Prosecutors argued that Warren, a No More Deaths member arrested in January 2018 by U.S. Border Patrol, "harbored and shielded from detection" two men in the country illegally at a ramshackle building used as a staging ground for humanitarian aid work on the outskirts of Ajo, Ariz. 

Defense lawyers said that instead, prosecutors had on "guilty goggles," and that despite a general lack of evidence against Warren and a "giant gaping" hole that should provide reasonable doubt for jurors to acquit, prosecutors were trying "to twist and interpret" everything that Warren did during the week before he was arrested as guilt.

"But, there is no evidence of guilt in this case," Warren's attorney said. 

The closing statements brought to end a seven-day trial, as the case was put to a jury of eight women and four men, who left the courtroom to deliberate.

Late Friday afternoon, the jury returned to a closed courtroom and asked the judge a question about the legal elements of "intent" relating to the charges. They then continued to deliberate as Warren, along with his lawyers and more than two dozen supporters, waited in the expansive hallway of the federal courthouse.

Around 4:50 p.m., the jury left the courthouse without rendering a verdict.

They will return at 9 a.m. Monday for further deliberations, Warren's attorney said.

He told the crowd that it was "unreal" to think that a jury could work through a week's testimony in just a few hours.  Warren "remains innocent," he said because "there's a presumption of innocence in this country," and said "this trial went as well as humanely possible when it comes to picking a jury in Southern Arizona."

The 36-year-old geography professor faces one count of criminal conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens and two counts of harboring, after he was arrested in January 2018 by U.S. Border Patrol agents at "the Barn," used by aid organizations trying to stem what volunteers have called a "humanitarian crisis" in the deserts west and south of Ajo, an unincorporated town about 110 miles west of Tucson.

If convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms, Warren could face more than two decades behind bars.

On Friday, assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright said that Warren was the "hub" of an effort to smuggle Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Sacaria-Goday into the U.S. from Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico, and that Warren later gave the two men directions so that they could head northward, and avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 85. She also said that evidence that migrants were dying in the desert was a "smokescreen and a distraction." 

Both men were arrested along with Warren after Border Patrol agents and sheriff's deputies raided the Barn, and were discovered hiding in the bathroom. 

Wright told the court that Warren and Susannah Brown, a registered nurse who volunteers with the group, knew Perez-Villanueva because they went to the shelter in Sonoyta. And, that they made a plan "in advance" to get the two men into the U.S. with the aid of Irineo Mujica, the organizer and founder of the shelter, and a leader of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group that has organized "caravans" of Central American migrants in groups for the last decade. 

Unbeknownst to the jury, Mujica was arrested this week in Sonoyta by Mexican authorities. While Mexican officials have been tight-lipped about the reason for his arrest, the incident comes on the heels of demands by the Trump administration to crack down on migration through Mexico or face rising tariffs on goods coming into the United States along the southwestern border. 

Wright argued that Warren only involved people he trusted not to tell Border Patrol the men were there, and that when a group of high school kids from Flagstaff were slated to arrive, he was working to make sure that the men were leaving, and that's why he went out to the Barn's front and gestured to two mountains, Child's Mountain and Hat Peak, to help give the men directions. 

On Jan. 12 of last year, Warren and other volunteers went to the shelter to bring food and water, and distributed "harm reduction" kits which includes a kit to purify cattle tank water, along with bandages and a pamphlet explaining the dangers of the desert. A video captured from Perez-Villanueva's phone shown to the jury shows Brown speaking to him, and then Mujica walks into the frame. 

Wright said later that evening, Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday, entered the U.S. and walked toward Why, Ariz., about 10 miles east of Ajo. "They were never lost," she said, rather they were carrying out a plan "with efficiency and direction," and that Mujica was clearly involved. 

Wright also showed selfies captured from Perez-Villanueva's phone that she said showed he was healthy when he was at the barn, and that it was "crystal clear" that they were at the Barn because it was part of a plan "orchestrated so they could continue their journey north. 

She also rejected the fact that the men left on the day that the NMD volunteers went to the shelter. "Coincidences don't happen like this. This was a plan," she said. 

As Wright spoke, some in the crowd hissed, but the packed courtroom — backed by an overflow room downstairs — remained mostly quiet as both sides summarized their cases.

During opening arguments on May 29, prosecutors said that No More Deaths was "not on trial," but during her final statement, Wright said that Warren was a "high-level member" of the group and that while he didn't earn any money by orchestrating a plan to harbor the men, he "gets to further the goals of the organization" and "thwart the Border Patrol at every turn."

Defense attorney Greg Kuykendall said that it was "frankly terrifying, just terrifying" that his client was charged with a "total lack of evidence."

"It's just supposition," he said. 

During the trial, a Border Patrol agent reviewed 14,000 pages of data from Warren's phone, and from those thousands of pages the agent produced a one-page report. "They were not interested in innocence," he said. Kuykendall also said that emails between Mujica and Warren, along with others showed that Warren was working on search and rescue and recovery efforts, and that when volunteers went to help the "Hope Shelter" there, they should contact Mujica. 

The U.S. government, he said, had all the power and resources to direct the agent to investigate and present all the evidence to the jury, he said. He also argued that the government failed to interview Mujica, noting that as one of the agents who arrested Warren — Brendan Burns — testified, he was called to a checkpoint after Mujica was held in a secondary inspection area, and yet he did not "interrogate" the man who might be at the center of the conspiracy. 

Kuykendall also questioned the credibility of the agents, noting their use in messages in a group chat of the word "tonc." 

The term "tonc" or "tonk" is widely used by agents to refer to border-crossers, but the term's origin is unclear. Some have argued that the term refers to the sound of a metal flashlight hitting a skull, while others have said that it stands for "temporarily outside naturalized country," or "true origin not known." 

And, Kuykendall said that Burns did not know that the Barn remained unlocked and unsecured. After Warren's arrest on Jan. 17, 2018, Border Patrol agents waited until Jan. 22 to execute a warrant and search the property. Burns appeared to not know that detail until he was told so by Kuykendall in court. 

"What kind of investigation is this, that leaves the building unsecured for 120 hours?," the attorney rhetorically asked the jury.

Kuykendall also argued that the two men who also arrested with Warren were given immunity from immigration charges so they would testify in a video deposition shown to the jury on Monday.

"They are the government's own witnesses" and yet they disputed some of Wright's arguments. "This is the best the government can come up with?" he asked. 

Prosecutors returned and during her final remarks Wright attacked Warren's credibility, saying that by seeking "context" he was actually trying to "distract" from the central issue and that Warren use of the word "orientation" was just a "fancy word for giving people directions." When he was outside and spotted by Border Patrol agents, he was giving the men information so they could go "from point A, Ajo, to point B, Interstate 8." These directions gave the men a "path" to follow away from the Border Patrol checkpoint allowing them to "further their journey," she said. 

She also said that evidence of a humanitarian crisis, and the loss of lives in the desert didn't matter because border crossers haven't died in Ajo. "That's not this case, that's a smokescreen and a distraction for this case," Wright said. 

Kuykendall said that government's lack of evidence, "if it weren't so scary, it would be laughable."

The jury went into deliberations following instructions from the judge, leaving Warren and dozens of supporters waiting to hear a verdict.

Kuykendall was in the otherwise closed courtroom with Warren, along with the prosecutors, when the jury asked for a legal clarification.

The judge instructed them to consider the various elements of each crime that Warren is charged with, including the intent to violate the law for each of the charges, Kuykendall said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Kuykendall’s statement about the prosecution’s case being “laughable.”

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