Fifth Circuit Hears Appeal in Deadly Smuggling Case

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A 28-year-old Mexican immigrant who had a heart attack and died in a truck just across the U.S. border might have just as easily “died while sitting at a table,” an attorney for the driver and his accomplice brother told a Fifth Circuit panel Friday.

“The evidence was very clear about the actual cause of death,” said Gregory E. Turley, a private practice lawyer who was appointed to defend one of the convicted smugglers by a federal judge in Texas under the Criminal Justice Act.

One witness, Turley said, called Pedro Martinez-Arreola a “time bomb,” and noted he had 99 percent blockage of one artery at the time of his death.

But Eileen Wilson with the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston said U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, who sentenced Daniel and Mark Anthony Salinas to 100 and 83 months, respectively, did so correctly using the available evidence.

Wilson said Judge Crane had ruled that if Daniel Salinas had not tried to speed away from a police officer whose lights and siren were blaring, Martinez-Arreola might not have died.

“The court specifically found that running from law enforcement” was the cause of his heart attack, Wilson said.

“The district court made clear it was very familiar with the heart issue,” she added.

In January 2017, Daniel Salinas, then 32, was driving a pickup truck filled with five Mexicans he had been paid to drive near La Grulla, Texas, when a local police officer saw him run a stop sign, according to the federal criminal complaint. The chase ended when Salinas drove into a tree.

Salinas jumped from the truck and ran. As he ran, a second pickup truck, driven by his brother, Mark Anthony Salinas, then 22, stopped and picked him up. The truck drove to the banks of the Rio Grande River where the brothers meant to jump in and swim across but were instead detained by Border Patrol authorities and taken to a nearby station.

Agents found that all five Mexicans who had been in the truck were undocumented immigrants. One of them, Martinez-Arreola, had a face injury a witness later said he sustained in the crash. He was taken to a local hospital where he later died.

Under questioning by Homeland Security officers, Mark Anthony Salinas acknowledged he and his brother have been smuggling undocumented immigrants and narcotics for many years, the complaint states. Daniel Salinas had been offered $500 per immigrant and his brother, who was supposed to meet the first truck with his own, was to be paid $50 per immigrant, according to prosecutors.  

The brothers’ sentences were the subject of the Fifth Circuit appeal Friday.

During the hearing, the judges were interested in the boundaries of the “but-for” standard of causation the district court used in the sentencing.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham, an appointee of Ronald Reagan, asked Wilson what if Martinez-Arreola got shot.

“That’s a risk that attends that enterprise,” he said. “What’s different here?”

“If you are a smuggler, you take your victims as you find them,” Wilson said. “They don’t come with a medical wager. The outlier here is that Martinez-Arreola was 28 years old.”

She went on to say that other circuit court decisions were looked at in the brothers’ sentencing.

“By nature, with alien smuggling you’re going to see injuries; you’re going to see death,” Wilson said. “That is why we rely on ‘but-for.’”

As the questioning of “but-for” causation continued, U.S. Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, an appointee of George W. Bush, wondered about various hypothetical circumstances, such as if there had been an earthquake, and later asked just how far “but-for” can go.

“For instance, but for my parents, I wouldn’t have been born,” she said to general amusement among the panel.

“I realize the court also wants to inject a sense of fairness,” Wilson said, noting that the district court has to strike a fine balance when relying on the standard.  

Judge Higginbotham seemed to agree, but maybe not completely.

“The law is that if you engage in a criminal enterprise, then the repercussion is so much more severe,” he said.

“The death would have occurred either way,” Turley, the attorney for Mark Anthony Salinas, reiterated during rebuttal.

U.S. Circuit Judge James C. Ho, an appointee of President Donald Trump, also sat on the panel.

The judges did not indicate how or when they will rule.

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