National News

Border Patrol Agent Who Shot Mexican Teenager Is Acquitted of Involuntary Manslaughter

Posted November 21, 2018 9:20 p.m. EST

A Border Patrol agent who shot and killed a Mexican teenager from across the border in Arizona was acquitted Wednesday of involuntary manslaughter in a case that has drawn national attention amid heightened debate over immigration.

In 2012, the border guard, Lonnie Swartz, opened fire into the Mexican city of Nogales, killing 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. A jury found Swartz not guilty of second-degree murder in April but deadlocked on manslaughter charges, prompting another trial.

In court Wednesday, the jury found Swartz not guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but it did not make a decision on voluntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

Next month, a judge from the U.S. District Court in Arizona will decide the status of the voluntary manslaughter charge, which the jury’s verdict left in question. In a statement, Elizabeth A. Strange, the first assistant U.S. attorney, said the prosecutors “fully respect” the jury’s verdict.

Sean Chapman, Swartz’s lawyer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening about the jury’s decision.

The case has received scrutiny because Swartz was the first border agent to face federal murder charges for a cross-border shooting. The prosecution’s defeat in the case comes amid a series of high-profile cases of violence by Border Patrol agents and a report documenting hundreds of charges for illegal activities.

Six years ago, Swartz emptied his .40-caliber pistol with a spray of bullets into Mexico, according to court documents. José Antonio was struck 10 times and collapsed on the sidewalk across from the border fence.

Swartz’s defense has argued that he opened fire in response to people, including José Antonio, throwing rocks from the other side of the fence. Chapman told The Associated Press that José Antonio endangered the lives of the law enforcement officials near the fence.

According to The Associated Press, prosecutors acknowledged in court that José Antonio was throwing rocks at the time, but said that behavior did not justify his death.

After Swartz emptied his weapon, he reloaded and fired more rounds, presumably at José Antonio, who was already lying facedown on the ground, Jaime Ernesto Calle, Swartz’s lawyer, said in court this year, according to court documents.

Swartz still faces a lawsuit filed by José Antonio’s mother, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A decision by a panel of judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, allowed the mother to sue for violating her son’s constitutional rights. This decision clashed with one out of another federal appeals court involving the case of a border guard in Texas who shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who was on the other side of the border in Mexico.

The appeals court deciding the Texas case determined that the family of the boy could not sue without congressional permission. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to take up that case and bring clarity to whether a border patrol agent can be sued after a cross-border shooting.

Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the ACLU who is representing José Antonio’s family, said he expected the Supreme Court to also decide soon whether to hear the challenge to their lawsuit. As for the jury’s decision in the criminal case, Gelernt said it had no bearing on their pursuit for damages.

“Regardless of the outcome on the remaining criminal charges,” he said, “we will continue to press the civil rights suit to seek justice for the family.”