They were in a two-van caravan with about 50 other illegal immigrants on a rarely used dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
But that wasn’t enough evidence to convince a judge Tuesday to let a jury even consider whether two Mexican nationals conspired to smuggle themselves into the United States.
So far, 29 illegal immigrants who were charged with conspiracy to commit human smuggling have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
But this week’s trial of Gustavo Unbalejo Gomez, 29, and Antonio Hernandez Lopez, 21, represented the first real test of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas’ and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s method for fighting illegal immigration.
Judge Thomas O’Toole said prosecutors had to present evidence that the men were part of a conspiracy before their statements could be heard.
His dismissal showed that prosecutors fell short.
O’Toole’s acquittals in Maricopa County Superior Court won’t put an end to arrests, which have reached 248 since March, Arpaio said.
“Every case is judged on its own merits and this is (O’Toole’s) decision,” Arpaio said. “I am not going to back down.”
A spokesman for Thomas declined to comment.
Immigrant advocates have accused the two elected lawmen of misusing Arizona’s nearly year-old anti-smuggling law by charging illegal border crossers with conspiracy to commit human smuggling.
The advocates and defense attorneys contend the intent of the law is to go after only the “coyotes” who are paid to smuggle in the immigrants.
“Maybe they’ll take a look at the law now,” said Corwin Townsend, who represented Hernandez. “Their interpretation of the law is wrong.”
One trial doesn’t set a legal precedent, but the acquittals are going to have an effect on Unbalejo’s and Hernandez’s five co-defendants still awaiting trial.
Joey Hamby, a defense attorney who represents Jose Razo Rizo, said he is going to ask a judge to dismiss the charge against his client based on O’Toole’s decision.
“There’s no question everybody else will jump on this,” Hamby said.
Charges against 12 defendants have been dismissed, most of them on June 29, because conviction appeared unlikely, according to county attorney spokesman Bill FitzGerald.
The trial, which began Monday, hinged on whether O’Toole would allow the jury to hear incriminating statements that Unbalejo and Hernandez made to sheriff’s deputies when they were arrested March 2 with dozens of others in a remote section of western Maricopa County.
The person accused of being a coyote in the case, Javier Ruiz Lopez, 33, is still on trial as O’Toole ruled it is “abundantly clear” from the evidence and his statements that Ruiz committed the crime of human smuggling.
The jury will likely begin deliberating on that case today.
Arpaio said the acquitted men, Unbalejo and Hernandez, weren’t going to walk out of jail onto city streets. He said deputies would take them to the border and hand them over to the Border Patrol.