Jurors in a federal court here Thursday began deliberating a verdict that is certain to have a major impact on the church-based movement in the United States that provides sanctuary to Central Americans fleeing alleged persecution in their home countries. The jury's decision will also constitute a significant statement on the credibility of US immigration laws governing refugees -- and on the way those laws have been administered.
And the verdict is virtually certain to be appealed.
Defense attorney Robert Hirsh and federal prosecutor Donald Reno made their final appeals to the jury Wednesday as the lengthy trial of 11 sanctuary workers finally neared its climax.
``It's up to you to apply standards consistent with fairness and justice,'' defense attorney Hirsh said in his closing argument. ``I don't think you'll countenance this [prosecution]. I don't think any American would.''
Special assistant US attorney Reno countered by saying: ``Mr. Hirsh suggests that it is patriotic to violate the law because you disagree with it. Nothing could be more to the contrary. If you think the law's unfair, the right way to change it is the hard way -- in the streets, in auditoriums . . . not by bringing illegal aliens before TV cameras.''
The defendants -- two Catholic priests, a nun, a Presbyterian minister, and seven religious lay workers -- have been on trial in US district court here since Oct. 22. They are charged with conspiracy and 29 individual counts of smuggling, transporting, and harboring illegal aliens.
Their position is that the Guatemalans and Salvadoreans they help are political refugees and that the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is endangering the refugees' lives by deporting them back to their strife-torn countries.
Prosecutor Reno counters: ``Every country has the absolute right to control its borders,'' he told the jury. Noting the number of conflicts going on all over the world, Reno said, ``Refugees from every continent would become part of our social fabric if they could.''
After the jury was excused defense lawyers argued to US District Judge Earl Carroll that it had been improper for Reno ``to paint the specter of yellow hordes or brown hordes coming into the country.'' Judge Carroll did not comment on the matter.
In their closing statements, defense lawyers stressed their contention that the government had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They hammered away at the credibility of Jesus Cruz, an undercover informant who infiltrated the sanctuary movement in 1984. Mr. Cruz provided the bulk of the government's evidence against the defendants.
Defense lawyers also called into question the government's failure to play 91 tapes secretly recorded by Cruz. And they argued that the defendants did not have criminal intent.
Prosecutor Reno argued that although the defendants may have had good motives, they still knew that what they were doing was against the law.
According to Paul Marcus, dean of the University of Arizona law school, the line between motive and intent is a fine one. ``A crime like conspiracy requires a very high standard of proof,'' he said. ``It's not enough to show that a person did the criminal act. The statute requires proof of state of mind -- that the person intended to violate the law. In a case like this, a fair amount deals with credibility,'' says Mr. Marcus. ``As often happens, the informant [Jesus Cruz] is kind of sleazy, but usually they have informants going up against drug dealers and similar-type people. Here he's going up against religious leaders, respected members of society.''