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No More Deaths: Mistrial Declared After Jury Refuses to Convict Scott Warren for Aiding Migrants

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Image Credit: No More Deaths

In Tucson, Arizona, a jury has refused to convict humanitarian activist Scott Warren, who faced up to 20 years in prison for providing water, food, clean clothes and beds to two undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Warren’s trial ended Tuesday in a mistrial after a deadlocked jury was unable to deliver a verdict. Eight jurors thought Warren was not guilty; four thought he was guilty. A status hearing is scheduled for July 2. Prosecutors have declined to comment on whether they would seek a retrial against Warren. We speak with Ryan Devereaux, a staff reporter at The Intercept who has covered Warren’s case extensively.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Tucson, Arizona, a jury has refused to convict humanitarian activist Scott Warren, who faced up to 20 years in prison for providing water, food, clean clothes and beds to two undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Warren’s trial ended Tuesday in a mistrial after a deadlocked jury was unable to deliver a verdict. Eight jurors thought Warren was not guilty; four thought he was guilty. A status hearing is scheduled for July 2nd. Prosecutors have declined to comment on whether they would seek a retrial against Warren. Warren briefly spoke to supporters outside Tucson’s federal courthouse, where the hung jury was declared.

SCOTT WARREN: Since my arrest in January of 2018, at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert. We know that’s a minimum number and that many more are out there and have not been found. The government’s plan in the midst of this humanitarian crisis? Policies to target undocumented people, refugees and their families; prosecutions to criminalize humanitarian aid, kindness and solidarity; and now, where I live, the revelation that they will build an enormous and expensive wall across a vast stretch of southwestern Arizona’s unbroken Sonoran Desert.

Today it remains as necessary as ever for local residents and humanitarian aid volunteers to stand in solidarity with migrants and refugees. And we must also stand for our families, friends and neighbors, and the very land itself, most threatened by the militarization of our borderland communities.

I have received enormous support from family, friends, lawyers and my community. Thank you to everyone, and I want to say that I love you all very, very much.

SUPPORTER: We love you, Scott!

SCOTT WARREN: If you can, though, take a moment now and get some rest. But the other men arrested with me that day, José Sacaria-Goday and Kristian Perez-Villanueva, have not received the attention and outpouring of support that I have. I do not know how they are doing now, but I desperately hope that they are safe.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Scott Warren is an activist with Ajo Samaritans and No More Deaths, which for years has left water and food in the harsh Sonoran Desert, where the temperature often reaches three digits during summer, to help refugees and migrants survive the deadly journey across the U.S. border. When Warren testified last week, he told jurors his actions were motivated by three intentions: relief of suffering, respect for human dignity and the right to self-determination. While presenting the case against Warren, U.S. Attorney Anna Wright said, quote, “He gave them food. He gave them water. … He did a bad thing. … This is not a case about deaths in the desert.”

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Warren was arrested January 17, 2018, just hours after No More Deaths released a report detailing how U.S. Border Patrol agents had intentionally destroyed more than 3,000 gallons of water left out for migrants crossing the border. The group also published a video showing border agents dumping out jugs of water in the desert. Hours after the report was published, authorities raided the Barn, a No More Deaths aid camp in Ajo, where they found two migrants who had sought temporary refuge.

We’re joined right now by Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter at The Intercept, who has closely covered Scott Warren’s trial and the criminalization of humanitarian aid volunteers for more than a year.

It’s great to have you back, Ryan. You’ve just flown back from Arizona, covering this trial that took about two weeks. Talk about the significance of the verdict. It’s a hung jury—eight for Scott Warren, four against.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Correct. It was an outcome that I personally wasn’t expecting. I expected this was going to go one way or the other, guilty or not guilty. The hung jury, which came after three days of deliberation, was not something I think anybody was really expecting here. It was quite a turn to a case that’s already taken a lot of turns.

The story is not over for Scott Warren and his defense team. This is not necessarily a defeat, but it’s not a victory, either. We don’t yet know if the government is going to retry this case. As you mentioned at the top of the show, there’s a status hearing coming in July. So, a lot of the questions surrounding this case, its significance, the potential precedent it could set, are still alive. And that precedent includes the possibility of a broadened crackdown on humanitarian aid work in the desert, potential targeting of folks who have undocumented people in their lives, potential targeting of mixed-status families in the United States. There’s a whole lot on the line with respect to this case, and those questions are still very much alive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve said, Ryan, that the crucial question for the jury was about Scott Warren’s intention. Explain what that means and the significance of that for the fact that there was a mistrial.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, so, 19 months after this arrest, we’ve seen a lot of evidence in this case, hundreds of filings. The government brought many witnesses, as did Scott’s defense team. But what it all really boiled down to was intent. Did Scott Warren intend to shield these men from law enforcement, knowing that he was in violation of the law? If so, the government argued, then he was guilty. Scott Warren’s attorneys said that, yeah, intent is critical to this, and Scott Warren’s intent in this case was to provide humanitarian aid, and that’s been his intent all along in working in the borderlands for the last four years.

So, jurors heard about how Scott behaved and what he did in the hours and days after these two young men arrived at the Barn, this humanitarian aid station in Ajo, Arizona. Scott Warren tended to the migrants’ feet. They had blisters on their feet. One was reporting sore ribs. He took down notes about their medical conditions. He called a doctor who the organization No More Deaths works with, has worked with for years, an award-winning physician. He reported the conditions that these young men were in. He was advised that they should stay off their feet and that they should rehydrate and that volunteers should keep an eye on them for the next few days.

The government, in its arguments in court over the last week, said that the notes that Scott Warren took during this period were part of a cover-up. They took these notes—No More Deaths, Scott—in order to be able to say that they were providing medical aid, when in fact they were just trying to help these men enter the country. They argued that Scott’s real intent is to thwart the Border Patrol at every turn.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Scott in his own words, talking about finding the remains of migrants who have died while crossing into the United States. This is a clip from The Intercept’s mini documentary titled Let Them Have Water.

SCOTT WARREN: We went from finding human remains every other month to like finding five sets of human remains on a single trip hiking through the Growler Valley and then going back a week later and finding two more sets of remains, and then, on a single day of searching, finding like eight sets of remains and bodies of people who had died in adjacent areas of the bombing range and on Cabeza Prieta. So just this like scale of this crisis, of the humanitarian crisis and the missing persons crisis, just blew wide open.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Scott Warren. The government says this isn’t about deaths. But since 2001, at least 3,000 migrants have been found dead in the southern Arizona desert. Thousands of others have disappeared. Activists say the numbers are probably much higher. Talk about the government saying it’s not about deaths, and, of course, Scott Warren’s argument and the name of his organization, No More Deaths.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, the government began this trial by arguing that this is not a case about humanitarian aid and deaths in the desert; this is a case about Scott Warren and Scott Warren’s actions. But what happened in the days that followed is the government put on many, many arguments about humanitarian aid and said that what No More Deaths and groups like it are doing is a political project, it’s not a humanitarian project. That’s false. Their entire goal is humanitarian aid. The government alleged that, in fact, these groups are political actors with political goals.

It’s important to keep in mind when we’re talking about all of this that the deaths in the desert are the result of a policy that began some 25 years ago under the Clinton administration. It’s called prevention through deterrence. And under this strategy, migrant populations are funneled into the deadliest parts of the desert. And increasingly in the last several years, that’s been the Ajo corridor, where Scott lives and works.

And beginning in 2014, Scott brought together a sort of network of humanitarian aid groups in the area to really start focusing on this region. And what they uncovered was just a pattern of death and disappearance that really rivaled anything else in the Sonoran Desert. So they started going out, dropping water and looking, often, for people who were reported missing or bodies that were reported. And they contributed to a historic increase in the number of remains and bodies found in that region during that particular time period. As that happened, the government escalated its crackdown on their work.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I just want to turn to Amnesty International America’s director, who has called for Warren’s charges to be dropped in light of the mistrial. She said, in a statement, quote, “The mistrial in the case of Dr. Scott Warren sends a clear message that there are people in the U.S.A. who refuse to acquiesce to the government’s attempts to criminalize compassion and humanitarian aid. As long as the U.S.A. and Mexico fail to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers between the two countries, human rights defenders like Scott Warren must be allowed to continue their necessary and life-saving work, unhampered by politically motivated harassment and prosecution.” So, Ryan, what do you think happens now?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, now we wait. We see if the government is going to retry this case or not. But we should note that Scott Warren’s prosecution takes place against a backdrop of targeting of humanitarian aid workers, immigrant rights advocates across the border. Just this year, earlier this year, we saw lawyers, activists, journalists in the Tijuana-San Diego area, who had worked with members of the migrant caravan, targeted by a sweeping intelligence-gathering operation carried out by CBP, ICE and law enforcement in that area. So this is not confined just to Scott’s case. It’s part of the broader crackdown on immigrants that we’ve seen under the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux, we want to thank you so much for being with us, staff reporter at The Intercept, where he covers immigration enforcement, the drug war and national security. His most recent article, which we will link to at democracynow.org, “Felony Trial of No More Deaths Volunteer Scott Warren Ends in Mistrial.” In May, he published “Bodies in the Borderlands,” an extensive investigation into Scott Warren’s case.

When we come back, outrage is mounting over the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender Afro-Latinx woman who was found dead in a cell at Rikers Island on Friday. Stay with us.

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