Felony Trial of No More Deaths Volunteer Scott Warren Ends in Mistrial

The felony trial of border-based humanitarian aid activist Scott Warren ended in a hung jury.

Scott Warren, left, accompanied by one of his defense lawyers, Amy Knight, speaks with press outside federal court in Tucson, Ariz., on June 11, 2019. Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

Twelve jurors walked into the federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, Tuesday afternoon with a problem. Two weeks after the U.S. government began to argue its case in the prosecution of Scott Warren, a border-based humanitarian aid volunteer accused of two counts of felony harboring and one count of conspiracy, the jurors could not come to a unanimous decision as to whether he was innocent or guilty.

The previous afternoon, the jurors had sent a letter to District Judge Raner Collins, informing him that they were deadlocked. Collins ordered them to go back and try again. By Tuesday, they were still stuck. Eight jurors believed Warren was innocent on all counts. Four believed he was guilty. They sent Collins another note, and, at 1:33 p.m., they reentered his courtroom. The judge asked the jurors if they all believed that further deliberation would fail to yield a unanimous decision. On that point, they were all in agreement: The jury was hung.

“I want to thank you for your time and your attention,” Collins said, and with that, he dismissed the jurors, and one of the most important trials involving humanitarian aid on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent memory came to an end.

Nineteen months after his arrest, Warren’s case had drawn international attention and outrage, with United Nations human rights experts and advocacy organizations from around the world decrying the prosecution as a blatant attack on humanitarian aid in a region where thousands of migrants have died — and continue to die — in the desert.

Despite the mistrial, the government has not dropped the charges against Warren, a 36-year-old geographer from Ajo, Arizona. The possibility of a retrial is still alive, with Warren facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all counts and sentenced to consecutive terms. A status meeting in the case is scheduled for early July.

“The government put on its best case with the full force of countless resources, and 12 jurors could not agree with that case,” defense attorney Greg Kuykendall told reporters Tuesday. “Scott Warren remains innocent as a legal and as a factual matter, because the jury could not conclude otherwise,” he added. “We remain devoted today in our commitment to defend Scott’s lifelong devotion to providing humanitarian aid.”

Humanitarian aid shelter in Ajo, known to groups as "The Barn" and the location where Dr. Warren was taken into custody by CBP.

Water and other assorted goods outside the Barn, a humanitarian aid shelter in Ajo, Arizona.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

Warren was arrested on January 17, 2018, at a humanitarian aid facility in Ajo known as the Barn, some 40 miles above the border, in one of the deadliest stretches of the Sonoran Desert for migrants making their way north. Owing to a Clinton-era border strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence, which intentionally funnels migrants into the most dangerous areas of the desert and remains the foundation of modern American border enforcement to this day, a minimum of 3,000 people have died in the Arizona borderlands — though the true total is guaranteed to be higher.

In 2014, Warren began building bridges between humanitarian groups in southern Arizona, an effort to focus aid work — including the delivery of food and water, and search and recovery operations — in an area where the effects of Prevention Through Deterrence have been particularly brutal: the so-called West Desert, also known as the Ajo corridor. In the years that followed, these volunteers directly contributed to a historic increase in the number of human remains and bodies recovered in the region.

On the morning of Warren’s arrest, one of the groups Warren volunteers with, the faith-based organization No More Deaths, published a detailed report implicating the Border Patrol in the destruction of jugs containing thousands of gallons of water left for migrants crossing the desert over multiple years. The report included video evidence. Hours after it was published, a pair of plainclothes Border Patrol agents set up a surveillance post across from the Barn. There they spotted Warren with two individuals they suspected were undocumented.

“Toncs at the barn,” agent Brendan Burns wrote in a group text, using Border Patrol slang for migrants; some believe it refers to the sound a flashlight makes when it connects with a human skull.

The “toncs” Burns referred to were 23-year-old Kristian Perez-Villanueva, of El Salvador, and 20-year-old José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, of Honduras. The pair had left their countries separately. Perez-Villanueva hoped to seek asylum. Sacaria-Goday was homeless. They were strangers when they met in a Mexican border town. They became close and crossed the border together. They spent two nights in the desert, where they were chased by immigration agents and tossed their backpacks and supplies, including their food.

Backed up by a caravan of law enforcement vehicles, the agents in the wash descended on the Barn and placed Warren and the two young men under arrest. The following month, Warren was indicted by a grand jury. While Warren was released on his own recognizance after a night in Border Patrol custody, Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were not. The government detained the pair as material witnesses in its case for several weeks, then deported them once their depositions were taken.

As The Intercept reported in a yearlong investigation published in May, Warren’s felony case was the culmination of an escalating law enforcement crackdown against humanitarian volunteers in southern Arizona that began shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Warren was also one of nine No More Deaths volunteers hit with federal misdemeanor littering charges in 2017 for leaving food, water, and other humanitarian aid supplies on a federal wildlife reserve outside Ajo, where migrants routinely die. The first trial in those cases, held in January, resulted in four No More Deaths volunteers convicted and sentenced to 15 months of probation and ordered to pay $250 in fines. A second group of volunteers facing misdemeanor charges accepted similar consequences days later, and the charges against them were formally dismissed.

Warren’s misdemeanor trial was held last month. Judge Collins has yet to issue a decision in that case.

Following the jury’s dismissal Tuesday, Warren’s friends and family filtered out into the hallway on the fifth floor of the courthouse, many unclear on what would happen next.

“Scott wanted to resume his life,” Mark Warren, Scott’s father, told The Intercept. “This has been the focus of Scott’s life for such a long time now, and it’s all encompassing. It’s not like it’s just something that’s happening to me over here — it’s everything.”

As Warren’s family and supporters awaited new information, Kuykendall and his co-counsel, Amy Knight, were given the rare opportunity to speak with the jurors about the case at length. The defense attorneys told The Intercept they left the conversation with the impression that the deliberations in the case were serious and the jurors’ recaps of the process were specific.

When Warren stepped out of the courthouse Tuesday afternoon, he was greeted by a throng of press, friends, and supporters. Standing before the cameras and microphones, he immediately addressed the issues that matter to him most. “Since my arrest in January 2018, at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert. We know that’s a minimum number and that many more are out there and have not been found,” Warren told the crowd. “The government’s plan, in the midst of this humanitarian crisis? Policies to target undocumented people, refugees, and their families; prosecutions to criminalize humanitarian aid, kindness, and solidarity.”

As he wrapped up his brief remarks, Warren turned his focus to the people who have supported him and to the people who have been lost from his story. “I’ve received enormous support from family, friends, lawyers, and my community. Thank you to everyone, and I want to say that I love you all very, very much,” he said. “The other men that were arrested with me that day, José Sacaria-Goday and Kristian Perez-Villanueva, have not received the attention and outpouring of support that I have. I do not know how they are doing now, but I desperately hope that they are safe.”

Join The Conversation