Humanitarian Aid Worker Acquitted of Harboring Immigrants

Scott Warren, left, of Ajo, Ariz., thanks his supporters and attorneys after walking out of court in Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday after being acquitted of two counts of harboring in a case that garnered international attention. Prosecutors said Warren illegally helped two migrants avoid authorities. He said he was fulfilling his humanitarian duties by helping two injured men. (AP Photo/Astrid Galvan)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren emerged from the federal courthouse to cheers after a jury acquitted him on charges that he illegally shielded two undocumented immigrants from Border Patrol agents at a rural desert aid station.

Warren, 37, barely smiled when he heard the verdict that came back after less than three hours of deliberation. Outside the courthouse, flanked by attorneys, he thanked supporters.

“The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness,” Warren said.

Border Patrol agents arrested Warren Jan. 17, 2018 at an aid station used by the non-profit No More Deaths. From a building known as the “barn,” Warren and other volunteers shuttle food and water into the Sonoran Desert where more than 3,000 bodies have been found – most identified by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office as undocumented immigrants.

Warren admitted he gave Kristian Gerardo Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Godoy from Guatemala food, water, Tylenol and a place to rest for four days and three nights, but he claimed he was never trying to hide them.

“Being a good Samaritan isn’t against the law,” defense attorney Greg Kuykendall told the jury during closing arguments Wednesday morning. “Following the Golden Rule is not a felony.”

This was Warren’s second trial stemming from the 2018 arrest. In June, a jury deadlocked on the harboring charges and a charge that Warren conspired with Mexican aid worker Irineo Mujica and No More Deaths nurse Susannah Brown to help Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Godoy.

Kuykendall urged jurors in Wednesday’s closing argument to separate laws from morals. Some people consider it immoral to go outside without a head covering, but that’s not the law, he told the jury.

“Some people’s morality tells them that they should report undocumented migrants to the Border Patrol, but that’s not the law,” Kuykendall said. “We have to obey the law, but we don’t have to follow someone else’s moral code.”

Outside the courtroom after the verdict, Warren echoed that sentiment. He understands the moral stance of people who oppose No More Deaths’ work.

“I understand that they are following a moral compass that guides them to different conclusions about the border than me,” he said.

Kuykendall called the prosecution case a “superstore of reasonable doubt” based on assumptions about Warren’s intent and “head-spinning leaps of logic.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Walters pointed out to jurors that if Warren were simply trying to keep the men safe, he could have told them how to find Arizona Route 85, which runs north toward Interstate 8, the men’s goal.

But Warren couldn’t offer them that route, Walters said.

“Because that route would lead them directly into the hands of the Border Patrol,” he told the jury.

The men didn’t need medical care or rest or food or water, Walters said.

“What they needed was a place to hide, and that is exactly what the defendant gave them, and that is intent to break the law,” he said.

After reading the verdict in this week’s trial, Judge Raner Collins also issued verdicts pending from a May bench trial stemming from a separate incident in which Warren and other volunteers were arrested during a water drop. He found Warren not guilty on one count of abandoning property – for leaving water in the desert.

That act was protected from prosecution because it was a religious act, as Warren had argued in his defense, but Collins convicted the aid worker on one charge of driving a vehicle in a wilderness area, deeming that not a religious act. Sentencing for that case is set for Feb. 18.

Outside the courthouse, Warren said the work will continue in the desert, where volunteers even today were out leaving food and water for immigrants.

“So let’s all take a deep breath, get some rest, and be ready for and open to whatever comes next,” he said.

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