PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. federal jury awarded more than $70,000 in damages to a group of illegal immigrants who claimed they were held at gunpoint by an Arizona rancher after slipping over the border from Mexico five years ago.
The civil jury at the U.S. District Court in Tucson, Arizona, found Roger Barnett liable for assault and intentionally inflicting emotional distress in the incident in March 2004. It ordered him to pay four women $73,352 in damages, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which backed the suit, said the group of Mexican nationals was resting in a dry streambed in Douglas, Arizona, when they were approached by Barnett, who was armed with a gun and accompanied by a large dog.
The suit alleged Barnett held them captive at gunpoint, threatening that his dog would attack and that he would shoot anyone who tried to leave.
David Hardy, an attorney representing Barnett, said his client was found not liable on claims of battery, false imprisonment and violation of civil rights, and planned to appeal.
The trial highlighted the issue of vigilante violence in southern Arizona, which is a major thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and the place where several civilian border patrols have operated in recent years.
“This verdict in favor of the plaintiffs sends a strong message condemning vigilante violence against immigrants,” MALDEF staff attorney Marisol Perez said in a statement.
Barnett, who claims to have detained more than 10,000 people who crossed the border illegally from Mexico and handed them over to the U.S. Border Patrol, has faced previous civil action.
In November 2006, a jury found Barnett responsible for holding a Mexican-American family at gunpoint during a hunting trip, and awarded them nearly $100,000 in damages.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Eric Beech