Arizona Jury Deliberates Border Agent's Manslaughter Case Lonnie Swartz fired across the border, killing an unarmed Mexican teenager. Swartz was acquitted of second degree murder. After the jury couldn't agree on manslaughter charges, the case was retried.

Arizona Jury Deliberates Border Agent's Manslaughter Case

Arizona Jury Deliberates Border Agent's Manslaughter Case

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Lonnie Swartz fired across the border, killing an unarmed Mexican teenager. Swartz was acquitted of second degree murder. After the jury couldn't agree on manslaughter charges, the case was retried.


A jury in Tucson, Ariz., is deliberating manslaughter charges against a Border Patrol agent named Lonnie Swartz. Swartz allegedly killed a 16-year-old Mexican citizen back in November of 2012. He's accused of shooting Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez 10 times in the back through the fence that divides Nogales, Ariz., from the Mexican city on the other side of the border. Swartz was acquitted of second-degree murder charges earlier this year. But the jury couldn't agree on the manslaughter charges, so the prosecution retried the case. Ana Adlerstein reports.

ANA ADLERSTEIN, BYLINE: The graveyard where Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez is buried is on a slope above the Mexican city of Nogales, looking out towards the international border fence.

TAIDE ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

ADLERSTEIN: The day after the Day of the Dead earlier this month, Jose Antonio's grandmother Taide Elena tidies up his grave. This is the comfort that the living remain with, she says, bringing them flowers and candles. A woman cleaning the grave alongside her asks how her grandson died.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

ADLERSTEIN: "My grandson was killed by Border Patrol." For six years, Taide Elena has been fighting for justice for her grandson's killing. It took years for Agent Lonnie Swartz to go to trial. He is the first agent to be tried for a killing in a decade. If he's found guilty, he would be the first convicted. Swartz claims with little proof that he was defending himself against rocks coming over the fence.

ART DEL CUETO: And, you know, rocks can hurt you. Rocks can kill you. Rocks can do some permanent damage.

ADLERSTEIN: Art Del Cueto is the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. That's the union who's funding Officer Swartz's defense. Rocking incidents are fairly commonplace, with some 1,500 reported from 2010 to 2014. In that same time period, agents responded to those with deadly force 43 times, killing 10 people, among them Elena Rodriguez.

DEL CUETO: The union is representing Lonnie Swartz because we believe he's innocent, and I believe Lonnie did the right thing.

ADLERSTEIN: The Border Patrol leaves it up to agents in the field to judge when to use deadly force. In Swartz's trial, the government prosecutor said that it was up to the jury to decide. Was Lonnie Swartz's decision to fire 16 rounds through the border fence necessary, and was it reasonable? James Tomsheck reviewed and assessed cases like these for eight years in the internal affairs office for Customs and Border Patrol. He believes the answer is no.

JAMES TOMSHECK: Any threat perceived by the agent that fired the fatal rounds could have been completely mitigated by simply stepping back from the border fence.

ADLERSTEIN: The Elena Rodriguez case has haunted Tomsheck since leaving the CBP in 2014. He says that it is one of the most clear-cut and egregious excessive use of force cases that he witnessed there.

TOMSHECK: This tragic incident is an example of an irresponsible use of lethal force. Had it occurred in the interior of the United States in any American city, it simply would never have been tolerated.

ADLERSTEIN: Back at the graveyard, grandmother Taide Elena buys ice cream for her great-grandkids.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

ADLERSTEIN: "Hope dies last," she tells me. Even without a guilty verdict, she still has a civil case pending. Her six-year-long fight wouldn't be entirely over.

ELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

ADLERSTEIN: "May God forgive him because we never will. Let's see what God says."

For NPR News, I'm Ana Adlerstein in Tucson.


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