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Humanitarian Scott Warren Found Not Guilty After Retrial for Helping Migrants at Mexican Border

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Scott Warren, a geographer and humanitarian aid worker based in southern Arizona, has been found not guilty on two counts of harboring unauthorized migrants in a case that has gained international attention and called into question the role of humanitarian aid during a time of contentious crackdown on immigration by the federal government.

The 37-year-old had been facing up to ten years in prison. “The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness,” Warren told a crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Tucson, Ariz. after the announcement of the verdict. “Everyone here did diligent, detailed and amazing work… I love you all.”

He was arrested on Jan. 17, 2018 by Border Patrol agents who had been surveilling a base used by humanitarian aid groups in Ajo, Ariz. that leave out water and food for migrants who make the deadly, and unauthorized, trek across the Sonoran Desert. The desert has claimed the lives of at least 7,000 migrants who have tried to cross it since the 1990s. Warren first started volunteering six years ago with aid groups like No More Deaths.

Scott Warren in the desert on the outskirts of Ajo, Ariz., on Sept 17.
Scott Warren in the desert on the outskirts of Ajo, Ariz., on Sept 17.Cassidy Araiza for TIME

“Yet again, No More Deaths has withstood the government’s attempts to criminalize basic human compassion,” wrote No More Deaths in a tweet. “We will continue to provide food, water, and medical aid to all those who need it, until the day that no one dies or disappears while crossing the deserts and oceans of the world.”

On the day of his arrest, Border Patrol agents found Warren with two migrants from Central America. Warren said that he gave them shelter, food and first aid. However, the Border Patrol agents claimed Warren was helping the migrants evade custody and prosecutors charged Warren with two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport. After facing trial in June, a jury failed to reach a verdict and the government sought a retrial that dropped the conspiracy charge. After a 6-day retrial in Tucson, Ariz., that began Nov. 12 — during which Judge Raner Collins prohibited the mention of President Donald Trump or the Administration’s policies — a 12-member jury found Warren not guilty after about two hours of deliberation.

“[The verdict] was such a validation of the incredibly important work that these humanitarians are doing at great risk to themselves,” says Greg Kuykendall, Warren’s lead attorney who worked the case pro bono. “It was a real heart-opener for me to be involved in this case.”

Warren also faced two misdemeanor charges, including abandonment of property for leaving water in the desert and for operating a motor vehicle on a wilderness refuge. Judge Collins has acquitted Warren of the abandonment charge on the basis of religious freedom, but he might still face legal consequences for the charge of operating a vehicle.

Warren faced 20 years in prison during the previous 9-day trial for his felony charges that ended in a hung jury. The federal government immediately requested a retrial and reduced the penalty to 10 years.

Warren, who sat down with TIME for an interview in September, says he has only acted out of empathy, motivated by his religious beliefs.

“You have blisters, you’re dehydrated, you’re cold, you’re hot, you’re tired — of course I’m going to provide that care, provide that relief,” Warren said. “It’s a little different than like going and protesting the wall being built.”

But prosecutors argued Warren knowingly assisted the migrants in hiding from Border Patrol. In sworn testimony during both trials, the two agents who arrested Warren said they saw him talking to the migrants and gesturing toward areas of the desert where they are less likely to be arrested by Border Patrol. Warren denied that claim, saying he was helping to orient the men to ensure they didn’t wander into more dangerous and deadly terrain.

The case has ramifications that go beyond Warren’s verdict.

“The government certainly wants to send a strong message to people who are providing aid to migrants,” Katherine Franke, professor of law at Columbia University and faculty director of the school’s Law, Rights and Religion Project, tells TIME.

What are the implications of this case?

Since the start of the Trump Administration, there has been an uptick in prosecution and harassment against humanitarian aid workers and lawyers who assist migrants along the southern border with Mexico. Several cases have been documented by organizations including the United Nations and Amnesty International. Since 2017, eight other No More Deaths volunteers have faced misdemeanor charges in connection with their volunteer work. Lawyers and journalists who cover the southern border have also been surveilled, searched and detained by government officials, according to a study by Amnesty International.

But the case against Warren has been the most severe of all charges faced by humanitarian aid workers by far.

Warren told TIME ahead of the retrial that he worried a guilty verdict could similarly mean the targeting of volunteers and aid workers who do not have as many resources as he has had, and that people in families with mixed immigration statuses could be at risk.

“You’re buying food for your uncle who is undocumented, so now we’re going to go prosecute you for harboring. You drive your kids or your family to the park for a picnic or something — is the government going to arrest you and say that you’re smuggling or you’re transporting?” he said in September. “That’s the other fear that I have, that they will try to keep using these laws in new ways to target more people.”

Kuykendall says Warren’s case has helped establish jury instructions for similar cases in the 9th Circuit so that now prosecutions have to establish the intent of the person accused of harboring. “It shows prosecutors… that they had better have evidence of a person intentionally trying to violate the law when they provide humanitarian aid, otherwise it’s not a crime,” he says.

Bijal Shah, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, says Warren’s case fits into a larger violation of international law by the U.S. government that is implementing policies aimed at keeping refugees and asylum-seekers from entering the country.

“Charging Scott Warren in this context is part of a broader framework of governmental interest in dissuading people from supporting non-citizens” she says. “By discouraging people from assisting non-citizens we are discouraging people from maintaining the United State’s humanitarian commitments.”

But the jury’s decision to acquit Warren sends a message to prosecutors, Franke says. She believes Warren’s faith-based actions convinced the juries in his first trial and the retrial that criminal prosecution is not necessary and inappropriate. “I think it sends a kind of message of a kind of humanity, of showing up for people in a desperate, really deadly situation, and that something is needed there but criminal law is certainly not it,” she says.

Zaachila Orozco, a No More Deaths volunteer, says no policy or prosecution can deter humanitarians from doing their work. She was one of the eight volunteers previously charged with misdemeanors related to their humanitarian aid work in Ajo. “I did what I did because I believe that everybody deserves the right to survive in this world,” she tells TIME ahead of the trial. “Frankly, our government is making it so much harder than necessary.”

People will follow their own moral and ethical code when it comes to saving another person’s life, Orozco adds, no matter the consequence.

But Shah adds that, despite the not guilty verdict, the fact that a prosecution occurred in the first place might be enough discourage future humanitarian assistance. “The fact that this was brought to the floor, the fact that it’s been so highly publicized in and of itself strikes fear in the hearts of people who might be involved in humanitarian efforts,” she says. “The general sense is ‘hey, this guy was trying to help non-citizens and look what happened to him, if I try to give them water or try to make sure that they’re safe, the same thing might happen to me.'”

What’s been the response to the verdict?

Activists and aid organizations across the country have expressed support for Warren and are celebrating the verdict on social media. Some spent days gathered in front of the court house in Tucson hosting prayers and demonstrations in support of Warren.

Amnesty International released a statement celebrating the not-guilty verdict Wednesday evening. “Sense has prevailed today with the jury exonerating Dr. Scott Warren for a simple reason: humanitarian aid is never a crime,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director. “The Trump administration is wrong to try to prosecute people who are only trying to save lives. By threatening Dr. Warren with a decade in prison, the U.S. government sought to criminalize compassion and weaponize the deadly desert against people who make the perilous journey to the United States in search of safety.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also chimed in, saying “Human compassion shouldn’t be illegal. Providing food & water to those in need should not be illegal. We must stand by our values & help immigrants in need, just as Scott did,” in a tweet.

“The criminal justice system ran its course and we respect the outcome, that’s all,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection tells TIME in a statement. The agency oversees Border Patrol and declined to comment further on the outcome of the trial.

Who is Scott Warren?

It was Warren’s pursuit of a PhD in Geography at Arizona State University that first brought him to Ajo in 2009. By 2013, Warren was living in Ajo, dividing his time between lecturing at ASU and volunteering for groups like No More Deaths and Ajo Samaritans.

His long-held faith compelled him to begin volunteering in the desert after seeing first-hand the mass casualties that result from dehydration, hypothermia and exposure. His first experience encountering human remains in the desert happened shortly after he began volunteering in Ajo. The discovery, he says, embodied the gravity of deaths at the border.

“I remember this sense of being like, ‘oh wow, this is really big.’ All the connections and all the ways that in that tragedy there’s also a really enormous cycle,” Warren told TIME.

He’s encountered dozens of remains on at least 100 water drops and search and rescue operations he’s participated in.

Since his arrest in January 2018, Warren continued to volunteer for humanitarian aid groups in Ajo despite the charges against him.

Correction, Nov. 21

The original version of this story misstated the number of jurors who deliberated in Scott Warren’s trial. It was 12 jurors who deliberated and four alternates, not 16 jurors who deliberated.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com