(CN) – The 9th Circuit vacated the life sentence of a human smuggler whose Chevy Suburban rolled in southwestern Arizona, killing 10 illegal immigrants. The court said the driver should have been allowed to present evidence that Border Patrol agents improperly laid down the spike strip he swerved to avoid.
Adan Pineda-Doval was trying to cross the Arizona-Mexico border in June 2006 with 20 people, including two pregnant women, packed into his Suburban when he was spotted by Border Patrol agents.
The agents chased him and, when he refused to stop, they laid down a spike strip in his path. The strip was placed in his path too early, and he swerved to miss it, causing the Suburban to roll. Right before hitting the strip, Pineda yelled to his passengers, “Commend yourselves to God, because we are being pursued!”
The passengers, most with no seat belts, were thrown from the vehicle. Five died at the scene and another five at the hospital.
Pineda-Doval was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences for transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death.
He raised several arguments in his appeal, only one of which the 9th Circuit embraced. The three-judge panel agreed that Pineda-Doval had been denied the right to an adequate defense, because the federal judge refused to let him present evidence regarding the agents’ alleged negligence in laying down the spike strip.
“The improper exclusion of evidence of [California Border Patrol] policies essentially deprived Pineda-Doval of all evidence in his favor, and thus violated his constitutional right to ‘present a complete defense,'” Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the San Francisco-based panel.
The court affirmed Pineda-Doval’s conviction, but vacated his life sentence and remanded “for the district court to expressly find whether there is clear and convincing evidence that Pineda-Doval acted with malice aforethought.”