A US border activist was acquitted on Wednesday on charges he illegally harboured two Central American men who had sneaked across the border into Arizona.
The verdict by a jury in United States District Court came after jurors deliberated for just hours in what was the second trial for Scott Warren. A mistrial was declared last June after a jury deadlocked on harbouring charges.
Warren was stoic after the verdict was read. His supporters were crying at the news of the decision.
Warren, 37, testified that neutrality guides his work near the border and denied he has ever helped migrants hide or instructed them how to avoid authorities.
The border activist was arrested in January 2018 by US agents who were staking out a humanitarian aid station in Arizona known as “The Barn”, where two Central American men had been staying for several days.
Prosecutor Nathaniel Walters said the men did not need medical attention and questioned the authenticity of Warren’s claim that he was “orienting” them before they left the camp.
The camp is run by a group that tries to prevent immigrants from dying in the desert.
“What they needed was a place to hide, and that’s what the defendant gave them, and that is an intent to violate the law,” Walters said.
Warren, a member of the group No More Deaths, said the group’s training and protocol prohibit advising migrants on how to elude authorities. He said his interest is in saving lives.
“We need to work within the spirit of humanitarian aid and within the confines of the law,” Warren said.
He and his supporters say President Donald Trump‘s administration has increasingly scrutinised humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert and conduct search and rescue operations when they are asked to help find a missing migrant.
The federal judge overseeing the trial barred Warren from mentioning the president.
No More Deaths celebrated the verdict on Twitter, saying it was a “validation of what we have always known: that #HumanitarianAidIsNeverACrime”.
The group added that it will “continue to provide food, water, and medical aide to all those who need it, until the day that no one dies or disappears while crossing the deserts and oceans of the world”.
This verdict is validation of what we have always known: that #humanitarianaidisneveracrime
We will continue to provide food, water, and medical aid to all those who need it, until the day that no one dies or disappears while crossing the deserts and oceans of the world.
— No More Deaths (@NoMoreDeaths) November 20, 2019
The Border Patrol had been investigating The Barn for months, according to documents released after news outlets sued to obtain them.
The documents show that in April 2017, an anonymous Arizona resident told Border Patrol officials that he suspected members of the group were harbouring immigrants in Ajo. About three months later, officials detained members of the group No More Deaths on suspicion of vandalising a camera at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where they regularly left water jugs.
In November 2017, agents interviewed residents who said they had noticed more traffic and littering outside The Barn.
Agents eventually encountered a man who said he had travelled across the desert with two other men who were picked up by a van.
Suspecting they might be at the No More Deaths building, agents began watching it on January 17, 2018, arresting Warren and the two migrants. The men were deported after providing video testimony.
More than 3,000 undocumented migrants have died since 2001 trying to cross a stretch of land where temperatures can exceed 46 Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), according to Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner data. Pima County is in Arizona.
Warren was arrested the same day that No More Deaths published a video showing US Border Patrol agents destroying water supplies the group left for migrants.
Warren’s lawyers argue the arrest was in retaliation for the video.