On March 6, 2000, federal border agents received a telephone call reporting a group of illegal Mexican immigrants near the Laguna Mountain Lodge about an hour east of San Diego, California. Agents arrived and followed footprints in the snow until they found 15 Mexicans, shivering and without food, huddled under the deck of a home in a canyon.
The group had crossed the U.S. border near Tecate, Mexico on March 2, 2000, and traveled through the mountains until a powerful snowstorm struck the area. They stopped at an abandoned building on the Cuyapaipe Indian reservation and during the night one of their group, Emeterio Flores-Zotelo, died of hypothermia. Agents then went to the reservation and found the body.
One of the members of the group, Juan Ramirez-Lopez, 44, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of smuggling Mexican citizens into the U.S., although when he was interviewed by the agents, he denied being the guide. He said that after they were caught in the snowstorm, he believed he needed to keep the group moving north out of the storm. He suffered frostbite himself.
Ramirez-Lopez went on trial in September 2000 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
At the trial, two members of the group testified that Ramirez-Lopez was their leader and that he had abandoned Flores-Zotelo because he was too weak to continue. Three members of the group were chosen by the government to appear at trial and testify for the defense that Ramirez-Lopez was not the leader. The others were all deported before the defense could interview them.
The defense contended that no one else in the group identified Ramirez-Lopez as their leader, but because the prosecution had deported them before trial, the jury never heard their testimony. Some of them had said that their guide was a different man who abandoned them prior to their arrest. Ramirez-Lopez, they said, was part of the group, but not their guide.
On September 18, 2000, Ramirez-Lopez was convicted by a jury of 19 federal charges. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison.
On January 10, 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the conviction in a 2-to-1 decision. Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a blistering dissent arguing that the prosecution improperly deported nine witnesses who would have supported Ramirez-Lopez’s claim that he was not the guide and therefore not guilty of smuggling.
“The question at the heart of this case is both simple and important: May the United States get rid of witnesses it knows would provide evidence helpful to the defendant in a criminal case by putting those witnesses beyond the power of the court and beyond the reach of defense counsel?” Kozinski wrote.
Kozinski noted that there were “contemporaneous interview notes [by government agents] showing that 12 of the 14 witnesses arrested with the defendant made statements unequivocally exculpating him," but the trial judge refused to admit the statements in evidence, or to permit the jury to hear any reference to the fact that these 12 missing witnesses would have corroborated the defendant’s claim.
The dissent so disturbed the prosecution that on March 6, 2003, prosecutors filed a motion, joined by the defense, to vacate the convictions and dismiss the charges. Ramirez-Lopez was released and then deported.
– Maurice Possley