TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – A U.S. Border Patrol agent goes on trial Tuesday over the 2012 death of a teen who was shot in the back through an urban fence separating the United States and Mexico.
Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez died in Nogales, Mexico, on Oct. 10, 2012, after being shot 10 times – mostly in the back – shortly before midnight from about 30 feet away. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz, who has been on administrative leave since the shooting, claims he fired in self-defense because Elena was throwing rocks at agents over the 20-foot fence from a street that parallels the border.
The Border Patrol considers rock throwing lethal force and allows agents to answer with gunfire under such attacks. Swartz, however, faces a second-degree murder charge.
Defense attorneys have argued that Elena was part of a smuggling crew seen climbing back into Mexico from the U.S. shortly before the shooting. Defense witnesses will testify that they saw Elena in the U.S. minutes before Swartz fired his weapon, according to Swartz’s attorney Sean Chapman.
But assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst told U.S. District Judge Raner Collins at a pretrial hearing that Elena’s activities before the shooting are irrelevant because this is not a drug-smuggling trial, but a case centered on whether Swartz was justified in using deadly force.
“We need to try this case on the facts,” Kleindienst said.
Elena’s mother Araceli Rodriguez, who has attended some pretrial hearings, sued over her son’s death in July 2014. She maintains he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He was doing nothing but peacefully walking down the street by himself when he was gunned down,” she said in her lawsuit, which is pending before the Ninth Circuit. “He was not committing a crime, nor was he throwing rocks, using a weapon, or in any way threatening U.S. Border Patrol agents or anyone else.”
The Border Patrol refused to identify Swartz until two years after the shooting, revealing his identity only after a court battle with Elena’s mother and a Phoenix media company. Surveillance video shows Swartz firing 16 shots, stopping to reload his handgun once.
The shooting has focused attention on the Border Patrol’s use of lethal force along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, where they often encounter groups of drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants.