PHOENIX – A federal judge in Tucson on Friday sentenced four humanitarian-aid volunteers for dropping off water and food intended for migrants crossing through a deadly, protected wilderness desert area in southern Arizona.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernando Velasco sentenced Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick to 15 months of unsupervised probation. They will also have to pay fines totaling $250 each.
On Jan. 18, Velasco found the four women guilty on two charges for entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a proper permit and abandonment of property for dropping off 1-gallon jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants.
Both are Class “B” misdemeanors.
Hoffman also was convicted for operating a motor vehicle inside the refuge, located south of Ajo. The charges stemmed from an Aug. 13, 2017, encounter with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer as the four women volunteered with the humanitarian-aid group No More Deaths.
As part of the sentence, all four women are banned from entering the refuge for the duration of their probation.
More: Four aid volunteers found guilty of dropping off water, food for migrants in Arizona desert
Following their sentencing, the women issued a joint statement thanking their families and supporters. They said that their convictions would not deter humanitarian work along the Arizona-Mexico border.
“The humanitarian work that has ultimately brought us here today will continue to address the border crisis until there are no more deaths,” their statement read. “We refuse to stand by and watch silently as the United States becomes more and more deeply authoritarian. This is something that affects and should concern us all.”
No More Deaths also held a march and a vigil Friday afternoon just outside the federal courthouse in Tucson.
In a statement, Elizabeth Strange, first assistant U.S. attorney, praised wildlife officers for their work in preserving protected federal lands. She also didn’t rule out the possibility of pressing charges in the future for similar instances.
“Our office will continue to review potential violations on federal lands on a case-by-case basis and bring charges, as appropriate,” she said.
New trial for convicted aid volunteers?
A month before the sentencing, defense attorneys for the four women filed a motion in court asking for a new trail arguing that a serious miscarriage of justice had occurred.
They claimed that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona had purposefully withheld information relevant to their defense and exploited that information during the three-day trial in January.
“The guilty verdicts resulted from the Government’s misconduct in withholding
the evidence from the defense and are in violation of the Defendants due process rights
and right to a fair trial,” the motion reads.
However, the federal prosecutors in the case disagreed. They said defense attorneys had failed to show that the criminal charges had violated the four volunteers’ exercise of religion and that the government had targeted them for prosecution.
“A new trial is not warranted in this case because no serious miscarriage of justice occurred,” the response from prosecutors read. “The evidence presented at trial strongly supports the verdict. The Court correctly found the defendants guilty of all charges, and the defendants cannot show any prejudice from any of the alleged errors.”
Charges dropped for some volunteers
In addition to the four women sentenced Friday, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against five other No More Deaths volunteers for humanitarian-aid activities at Cabeza Prieta. They were dubbed as the “Cabeza 9.”
But last week, the attorneys for four of those other volunteers announced that they had reached a deal with prosecutors to drop criminal charges against them.
As part of the agreement, Caitlin Deighan, Zoe Anderson, Rebecca Grossman-Richeimer and Logan Hollarsmith would instead be issued civil infractions and pay fines of $250 each.
The four had entered Cabeza Prieta without a permit on July 19, 2017. But they said they had done so in efforts to find three migrants who had gone missing in the refuge, a well-known and deadly trafficking corridor.
A ninth No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, also faces criminal charges. Unlike the other eight volunteers, he also faces felony charges.
Border Patrol agents arrested him Jan. 17, 2018, in Ajo on charges that he was harboring two undocumented immigrants.
Warren denies the charges, and No More Deaths claims his arrest is in retaliation to a report published earlier that same day that had criticized Border Patrol for tampering with water jugs left for migrants in the desert.
His trial is slated to begin in May.