An Arizona jury has found Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz not guilty of involuntary manslaughter for shooting and killing 16-year-old José Elena Rodríguez through the U.S.-Mexico border fence in 2012. The jury hung on whether to bring a charge of voluntary manslaughter, leaving it unclear whether prosecutors would seek to try Swartz a third time. A previous jury acquitted Swartz on murder charges but deadlocked on lesser manslaughter charges.
Authorities claimed José Elena Rodríguez was throwing rocks at agents over the border fence before Swartz opened fire. Medical examiners say José was shot 11 times with all but one of the bullets striking from behind, leading them to conclude the teen was shot in the back as he lay on the ground. An autopsy revealed that gunshot wounds to the head, lungs, and arteries killed him.
The incident occurred around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday 10 October, 2012. Nogales police received a call reporting “suspicious activity” on International Street, a road running directly along the border. Officers on scene were investigating a report that two men carrying “bundles taped to their backs” had climbed the fence into the United States. Identifying the bundles, on the basis of similar incidents in the past, as most probably containing marijuana, they called for back-up. After several Border Patrol and Customs agents arrived, they saw the two men scaling the fence back into Mexico, empty-handed and with nothing on their backs. They commanded the two men to climb back down. Officers reported seeing “rocks flying through the air” at the agents and also heard “gunfire,” although they were unable to identify its source.
After verbal commands from agents to cease throwing rocks were ignored, Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz then discharged his service weapon. Swartz fired 16 rounds, hitting Rodríguez 11 times. Rodríguez was unarmed, standing on the Mexican side of the border on a sidewalk on Calle International street, in front of a doctor’s office. U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Ray Swartz was charged with second degree murder for the killing. Border Patrol agents are rarely criminally charged for using force but the killing sparked outrage on both sides of the border and came as the agency was increasingly scrutinized for its use of force.
Prosecutors said Swartz was frustrated over repeated encounters with people on the Mexico side of the border fence who throw rocks at agents to distract them from smugglers. They say he lost his cool when he fatally shot Rodriguez. Prosecutors acknowledge that the teen was throwing rocks at the agents but that wasn’t justification for taking his life. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office said prosecutors haven’t decided whether to try Swartz again on the voluntary manslaughter charge.
Swartz still faces a civil rights lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the teen’s mother. Attorneys for Rodriguez’s mother filed the suit in federal district court in Tucson, seeking civil damages against the agents involved in what their lawsuit terms the “senseless and unjustified” death. The suit alleges that in shooting and killing the teenager, agents “used unreasonable and excessive force” in violation of Jose Antonio’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights and that their actions were not legally justifiable or necessary. The suit doesn’t specify an amount sought in damages.