Court Overturns Smuggling Conviction, Citing Deportation Of Key Witness

By Adrian Florido
September 17, 2012

SAN DIEGO -- A federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a man prosecuted for smuggling people across the border, citing the government's deportation of a witness who could have helped his case.

In March 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested a group of migrants trying to cross the border through a canyon. They also arrested two men suspected of being their smugglers.

Several migrants later accused one of those men, Jonathan Leal-Del Carmen, of being their guide. But at least one woman in the group said he had not been.

The government kept the migrants who accused Leal-Del Carmen in the U.S. and used their testimony at his trial. But before Leal-Del Carmen's indictment, they deported the woman who said he was not their foot guide, and later kept her testimony from his attorney. Leal-Del Carmen was convicted.

But on Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that conviction, forcing the lower court whether to dismiss the charges against him or allow a retrial. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said the government had prevented Leal-Del Carmen from mounting a full defense by knowingly deporting a witness who could have helped his case. And it said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy’s office and the judge in the case had made matters worse by keeping possibly exculpatory evidence from the jury.

"As of today," the court wrote, "there should be no doubt that the unilateral deportation of witnesses favorable to the defense is not permitted."

The U.S. Attorney's Office refused to comment on the case.