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Life sentences thrown out again in deadly immigrant crash
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for a second time, has overturned the 10 consecutive life sentences imposed on a human smuggler whose 2006 rollover crash on Martinez Lake Road took the lives of 10 illegal entrants, including a 17-year-old pregnant woman.
In its ruling, the San Francisco-based federal appeals court wrote that it remains unconvinced that Mexican national Adan Pineda-Doval acted with “malice aforethought” when he swerved to avoid road spikes set up by U.S. Border Patrol agents, causing his Chevy Suburban packed with 20 illegal entrants to roll over.
“We are obviously disappointed. We feel that we protect the people of this country by protecting the border and that the court system should protect us, but instead it failed here,” said Derek Hernandez, the Yuma president of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 2595, a union representing about 17,000 agents. “We should know we have a consistent court system to rely on. This ruling tells me that we don't.”
In 2008, a jury convicted Pineda-Doval, who was 21 at the time of the crash, of 10 counts of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona then sentenced Pineda-Doval to 10 concurrent life sentences.
Although the 9th Circuit affirmed the conviction in 2010, it overturned the life sentences, saying the trial court had improperly applied second-degree murder guidelines without deciding whether Pineda-Doval acted with malice.
U.S. District Judge Stephen McNamee in Phoenix, however, imposed the same sentences on remand about a year later, ruling that “everybody knows that overloaded vehicles are inherently dangerous, and that Pineda-Doval knew that taking evasive action was going to result in extreme consequences to anyone involved should there be an accident.''
Divided on appeal this time, the same three-judge panel vacated the sentences again on Monday, finding the record lacking on Pineda-Doval's alleged malice. The panel wrote that the trial court judge neglected to consider that Pineda-Doval had, during a previous chase, swerved to avoid a similar spike strip without causing an accident.
“In light of the prior incident, there is no clear, direct, or weighty evidence in the record that Pineda-Doval was aware of a very high likelihood that the overloaded Suburban would roll over,” Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the majority.
Also, the Border Patrol agents themselves said the incident was fairly routine, and that spike strips and the avoidance thereof had never before caused such a deadly accident.
“The agents testified that they had participated in deploying spike strips many times,” Fletcher wrote. “The overwhelming majority of the vehicles that the agents had attempted to stop with spike strips were high-profile vans or SUVs carrying many passengers, like the overloaded Suburban driven by Pineda-Doval. The agents had observed vehicles stopped by spike strips, as well as vehicles that drove around them. But none of the agents had ever witnessed a vehicle roll as a consequence of either driving over or attempting to drive around a spike strip.”
The case will be returned to the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona for resentencing for a second time. Pineda-Doval can testify at the sentencing hearing, over which Judge McNamee will still preside, according to the ruling.
“This was a horrific accident. There were people who died. I feel the life sentences were justified,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully, now the third time will be the charm. I'm appreciative to the prosecutors who are wiling to continue this fight. I think it is a noble cause.”
Judge Susan Graber argued in dissent that the majority should have afforded the lower court greater deference.
“The District Court did exactly what we directed,” she wrote. “In the particular context of this case, the majority's conclusion that the district court clearly erred amounts to a belated determination that Pineda-Doval's actions could not, as a matter of law, have constituted malice aforethought.”
Pineda-Doval was driving a Chevrolet Suburban packed with 20 illegal immigrants on Martinez Lake Road on Aug. 7, 2006, when Border Patrol agents spotted him. He tried to get away, and the van crashed when he swerved to avoid a spike strip that agents had placed in the road. Several people were ejected from the vehicle and died on the scene.
That, however, was not the first time Pineda-Doval tried to escape from law enforcement while smuggling illegal aliens. According to court documents from the U.S. District Court in Yuma, he drove a truck from Yuma to Quartzsite on June 25, 2005, with Border Patrol agents and Arizona Department of Public Safety officers in pursuit.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.