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Pilot not guilty on 1 count of lying about border drowning; mistrial declared on 3 counts
HOUSTON (AP) ' A federal jury found a Department of Homeland Security helicopter pilot not guilty Friday of lying about his role in the 2005 drowning of a would-be illegal immigrant in the Rio Grande in South Texas, but couldn't reach a verdict on three of four counts.
Jurors found James Peters not guilty on one count of making false statements to federal investigators looking into the drowning death of Carlos Delgadillo Martinez. A judge declared a mistrial on the three other counts of the same charge.
Peters had faced up to five years in prison if he had been convicted.
Prosecutors accused Peters of lying about flying his helicopter low in an attempt to force Delgadillo and another person back to Mexico. Officials say the force of the turbulence from the helicopter's rotor blades made Delgadillo lose his grip on an inner tube.
The verdict came after a brief trial during which testimony lasted little more than a day.
During closing arguments, prosecutors told jurors that surveillance video clearly shows Peters flew his helicopter over the immigrants, getting as close as 100 feet to an international bridge in Laredo, in an attempt to drive them back to Mexico as they tried crossing into the United States on Dec. 14, 2005. Delgadillo's body was found later that day.
"Peters decides to try to push them back, force them back," said prosecutor Joseph Magliolo. "He takes progressively more aggressive action to the folks in the water."
Lawyers for Peters, 41, argued that prosecutors presented flimsy evidence and that the video doesn't clearly show how far above the men the helicopter actually flew.
Thomas Berg, one of Peters' attorneys, told jurors the pilot didn't lie to investigators when asked if he encountered illegal immigrants that day and whether he flew close to the bridge. Berg said Peters believed he did not fly too close to the bridge and didn't recall flying over any individuals near the bridge that day.
"The dangerous work (pilots like Peters) do in trying to secure our border is to protect you," Berg told jurors. "He was doing his job that day."
Berg also said there's no proof of anyone drowning on the video.
"This is not a case about killing somebody in a river," he said. "You don't see anybody die in this video. You don't know how that man drowned."