SAN DIEGO (AP) - Federal jurors deliberated for just two hours Tuesday before convicting a Mexican man of murder in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent three years ago at a popular southeastern California campground.
Jesus Navarro testified during the two-week trial that he wasn't even in the marijuana-filled Hummer that struck and killed Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar at the Imperial Sand Dunes, where drug smugglers have long mixed in with recreational dune riders. Navarro also said he was forced to confess to the crime under interrogation by Mexican officials.
But jurors rejected that testimony, as well as defense arguments that questioned the credibility of drug smugglers' testimony and the reliability of witnesses who identified Navarro as the driver of the vehicle in the January 2008 incident.
Authorities said the Border Patrol was chasing Navarro's Hummer and the 32-year-old Aguilar was killed as he lay down a spike strip to stop the vehicle. Prosecutors argued that Navarro intentionally struck Aguilar as he was fleeing back to Mexico.
The 25-year-old Navarro was long an elusive target for U.S. authorities. He escaped to Mexico in a stolen Border Patrol vehicle in another drug smuggling attempt in 2007, less than four months before Aguilar was killed.
Mexican authorities arrested and charged him with migrant smuggling soon after Aguilar was killed, but released him in June 2008, prompting outrage from the U.S government. Mexican authorities said the U.S. didn't seek Navarro's extradition until a week after he was freed.
Navarro was caught again months later and extradited to the United States.
The stolen Border Patrol vehicle from the 2007 incident figured prominently in the trial. Defense attorney David Bartick said Navarro was "basically expelled" from his drug smuggling organization because of the unwanted publicity he brought.
"At this point, he was essentially a burned individual who could no longer be used by the organization," Bartick said during his closing argument.
Prosecutors highlighted testimony of Navarro's alleged collaborators to argue that he remained an active smuggler. Eyewitnesses identified Navarro as the driver in photos after the killing, though the defense said their findings were tainted because a photo of Navarro from a previous immigration violation was already widely circulated.
Jurors on Tuesday also found Navarro guilty of conspiring to distribute marijuana in connection with Aguilar's death. The Mexicali resident faces maximum sentences of life in prison for murder and 40 years in prison on the drug charge when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Michael Anello on June 27.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy praised prosecutors for bringing Navarro to the U.S. and getting a conviction.
"It truly honored Agent Aguilar and the devastating impact this senseless crime has had on his family and colleagues," she said.
After Aguilar's death, the Border Patrol built a 13-mile fence that stretches across the largest sand dunes in the U.S. The sands extend about five miles into Mexico. Until 2008, the border was almost invisible, marked by 15-foot concrete obelisks spaced far apart, and riders veered back and forth.
The dunes draw up to 200,000 people on busy holiday weekends, offering drug smugglers a chance to blend in. Interstate 8, the main route linking San Diego and Phoenix, is less than a half-mile from the border at one point.