Hung jury in trial of No More Deaths volunteer charged with harboring migrants

Scott Warren’s 2018 arrest occurred just hours after No More Deaths released videos purportedly showing Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and food volunteers had left behind. Advocates contend his arrest was retaliation by Border Patrol. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The trial of No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren ended Tuesday without a verdict. Warren faced 20 years behind bars on charges of conspiring to transport and harbor two undocumented immigrants he encountered in the desert of southern Arizona last year.

Judge Raner C. Collins of the U.S. District Court in Tucson declared a mistrial after jurors told him further deliberations would not lead to a verdict. He set a status hearing for July 2.

“A hung jury means the government could not prove its case,” Warren defense attorney Amy Knight said. “Scott remains innocent and admirable.”

Chris Fleischman, a volunteer with No More Deaths, said the organization plans to continue its humanitarian aid work following the announcement.

“It’s still good to know that the Trump administration’s attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid has failed,” he said. “But we will still be working to end death and suffering in the borderlands.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the government will seek a new trial against Warren, 36, who was arrested by Border Patrol agents near Ajo on Jan. 17, 2018.

“I would think that they wouldn’t waste their effort to do that,” Fleischman said, adding, “We’re concerned for his freedom. That he could be prosecuted for doing what we all had thought is legal anyway.”

The trial began May 29 with the prosecutor asserting that federal authorities are not targeting humanitarian aid along the border with Mexico.

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“No More Deaths is not on trial,” Nathaniel Walters told the jury. “Scott Warren is.”

In his opening statement, however, defense attorney Gregory Kuykendall said Warren did not intend to break the law when he came across two undocumented immigrants early last year.

“Scott intended to perform basic human kindness,” he told jurors, and was acting in accordance with his Christian faith.

His family, friends and supporters filled the courtroom and an overflow room, and gathered outside the U.S. District Courthouse downtown as the trial opened. They claimed the Trump administration is targeting humanitarian aid groups.

Kuykendall said Warren was careful to follow the health and legal protocols set forth by No More Deaths to make sure efforts to provide water, food and clothing for migrants attempting to cross the inhospitable desert stay within the law.

Outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial, dozens of supporters carried signs and voiced their alliance with Warren.

One of them, Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler, the news media coordinator for No More Deaths, said the charges against Warren were an escalation of legal tactics used by federal authorities against the kind of work the group does.

“We think this is stemming from both the current administration and efforts to really target humanitarian aid workers, as the crisis on the border continues,” she said.

A complicated history

On Jan. 17, 2018, Border Patrol agents John Marquez and Brendan Burns were surveilling “the barn,” which is an old house near Ajo that serves as a base of operations for No More Deaths. As they approached the structure, they spotted Warren and two undocumented Central American immigrants, Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday.

Kuykendall said Warren had not expected the two men would be there. Warren and the migrants had a hard time communicating, but it was clear they were hungry and tired, the lawyer said.

Warren has said he provided food and water and contacted a nurse in the area. Both migrants were dehydrated, had blisters on their feet and one of them had severe chest pain. Warren advised them to rest.

Border Patrol contends that Warren was helping the two men cross illegally into the United States. The trial was seen as a precedent for future cases involving humanitarian aid given to undocumented immigrants.

Warren’s arrest occurred just hours after No More Deaths released videos that purportedly showed Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and food volunteers had left behind. Volunteers contend his arrest was retaliation by Border Patrol.

Pastor Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, who was outside the courthouse at the start of the trial, said she believed Warren’s faith, just like her own, commanded him to “care for others.”

Since 2000, the remains of nearly 3,000 people who died while crossing the border in southern Arizona have been recovered, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. No More Deaths began operations in 2004.