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Scott Warren, 37, after his acquittal on November 20.EXPAND
Scott Warren, 37, after his acquittal on November 20.
Hannah Critchfield

Jury Finds Scott Warren's Aid to Migrants Wasn't a Crime

Scott Warren, humanitarian aid worker and No More Deaths volunteer, has been found not guilty of harboring charges in his high-profile case against the federal government.

The government's case against Warren for aiding asylum seekers and border crossers in Arizona had drawn international attention, especially after Warren's first trial ended in a hung jury on June 11, testing the limits of United States citizens' ability to help to migrants under the Trump administration. The geography teacher could have served 20 years in prison if convicted.

"The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness," Scott Warren said in his speech to supporters outside the U.S. District Court after the trial's conclusion on November 20. He thanked his lawyers, Gregory Kuykendall and Amy Knight, who stood with him during the address. 

Volunteers from the nonprofit No More Deaths group who had not been at the trial flocked to the courthouse, where Warren later made his post-trial statement. 

"I was standing in Sprouts when I got the text and found out," one volunteer said in passing, bike in hand and fringe bangs peeking out of her helmet, as a group of about 10 volunteers hustled across the street to the scene. "I'm still in shock they decided so quickly," the volunteer said.

The jury came to its decision to acquit Warren in less than two hours — a relatively short amount of time for jury deliberation, and a symbolic blow to federal prosecutors for the U.S. government.

The charges stemmed from Warren's arrest by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Ajo, Arizona, in January 2018, after he helped provide food, water, and lodging to two undocumented immigrants that authorities said entered the country illegally.

Prosecutors said Warren deliberately attempted to hide the two men, who were from El Salvador and Honduras, from law enforcement for several days. Warren and his defense have consistently said he was providing needed aid to the men, screening them for illnesses, providing them with sustenance, and following No More Deaths protocol.

Warren's litigation over the last year and a half turned into a courtroom saga, with prosecutors first accusing the aid worker of conspiracy with migrant activist Irineo Mujica, who they never requested testify, then motioning to seek a retrial after an 8-4 hung jury, and then eventually succeeding in barring conversations about Donald Trump or his administration during the second trial.

Internationally, activists have decried the federal government's prosecution of Warren, claiming the criminalization of humanitarian workers who aid migrants is part of the Trump administration's larger crackdown on immigration into the country. From the beginning, defense attorneys have stated that the case is part of the Trump administration's attempts to deter migration through the country's southwest border.

"There are those who disagree with our humanitarian work. Some of those folks are within this very courthouse," Warren said in his speech. "And they are also our neighbors, friends, and part of our own families. I understand that they follow the moral compass that guides them to different conclusions about the border than me. And I hope they know that I have much to learn from their perspectives, experiences, and frustrations as well."

Warren said Jose Sacaria-Godoy and Kristian Perez-Villanueva, the two migrants who he had been aiding, were at the center of the trial's story.

The U.S. government had offered Sacaria-Godoy and Perez-Villanueva immunity from prosecution if they agreed to testify for the first trial, and deported them shortly after they did.

"To migrants like Jose and Kristian ... who must make impossible decisions many of us could not even imagine, who bear the brunt of this suffering, our hearts are with you," Warren said.

Organizations like No More Deaths, which was founded in 2004, are dedicated to preventing exposure deaths of people journeying through the Arizona desert after crossing the border. No one knows the true scope of the crisis, but a report by activists in 2016 estimated that nearly 9,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the desert since the expansion of border enforcement in the 1990s. Since June of this year, at least 74 people have died crossing the Mexico border into Arizona, according to the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner and the Yuma County Medical Examiner's Department.

Warren and his father, Mark, who testified during the second trial that morning, declined to comment further, and did not say if Warren planned to resume aid work on the international border.

“We’re of course disappointed in the verdict,” Michael Bailey, U.S. attorney in the case, said. “We’ve never looked at the Warren case as a humanitarian aid case — to be clear, we don’t consider ‘harboring’ giving someone who’s in distress water or medical care. If others are using humanitarian aid as a shield to help facilitate illegal entry, we’ll continue to prosecute those cases.”

The aid worker remained outside the courthouse for several hours, embracing friends and supporters, many of whom were tearful.

"I just can't believe it's finally over," Reverend Steve Keplinger of Grace St. Paul's Church, a colleague of Warren's who had followed both trial's progress. "This was a brutal process, especially when prosecutors announced the second trial — this seemed like it came from the top."

Elisa Hauptman of the Tucson Samaritans, an aid affiliate of No More Deaths that provides assistance to migrants, said she was mostly just relieved — people like Warren would have continued aid work regardless of the decision.

"This work is going to keep happening," she said. "But it was always going to keep happening."

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