April 24, 2018 / 1:01 AM / 7 months ago

U.S. Border Patrol agent acquitted of murdering Mexican teenager

TUCSON, Ariz. (Reuters) - A U.S. Border Patrol agent was found not guilty of second-degree murder on Monday in the shooting death of a Mexican teenager through the fence between Arizona and Mexico.

Lonnie Swartz, 43, was acquitted by a federal jury in Tucson after four days of deliberations in the Oct. 10, 2012, death of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

But the jurors deadlocked on a separate charge of involuntary manslaughter against Swartz, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial on that count.

It was not immediately clear if prosecutors would seek to put Swartz, who said that he shot Elena Rodriguez in self-defense after rocks were thrown at him, on trial a second time on that count. Swartz has been on leave without pay from the Border Patrol while facing the criminal charges.

The trial, which lasted more than four weeks, is a rare prosecution against an agent for using deadly force. In 2008, Nicholas W. Corbett was tried for shooting and killing a man near the border, but the jury deadlocked and the charges were dismissed.

Since Corbett’s case, Swartz is the only agent to face prosecution in Arizona for using deadly force.

Swartz was standing on an embankment about 14 feet (4.27 m)above Elena Rodriguez and behind the 22-foot-high metal wall that separates Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora, when he fired 16 rounds in 34 seconds from three different firing positions, emptying one magazine from his pistol, before he reloaded and firing three more shots.

Last week, federal prosecutors said during closing arguments in U.S. District Court that Swartz fired three shots at the teen and that his first shot hit Elena Rodriguez in the back, sending him reeling to the ground.

Swartz then continued to fire on Elena Rodriguez while he was “still alive and fighting for his life after he was shot in the back,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst said.

A final shot to the head killed Elena Rodriguez, Kleindienst said.

Sean Chapman, one of Swartz’s defense attorneys, said Swartz was a man in a “very dangerous situation who did the very best he could,” which was to fire his weapon into Mexico in defense of himself, his fellow agents and Nogales police officers.

“At the moment he decided to fire, the rocking was ongoing,” Chapman said. Chapman argued that Swartz thought he was firing on a second rock-thrower.

Prosecutors stipulated that Elena Rodriguez may have been throwing rocks, but argued that whatever his actions that night, they were not a “capital offense.” 

Reporting by Paul Ingram in Tucson; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Leslie Adler

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