Vigilante Found Guilty of Murder in Arizona; Could Face Death Penalty

Vigilante Found Guilty of Murder in Arizona; Could Face Death Penalty

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PHOENIX, Ariz.—Shawna Forde, the founder of a vigilante border group, could face the death penalty after she was found guilty on Monday of killing 9-year-old Bricenia Flores and her father Raúl Flores in 2009.  The jury will begin deliberations on Tuesday on whether or not to impose capital punishment.

Forde, the 43-year-old leader of Minutemen American Defense (MAD), a splinter faction of the Minutemen - a citizen group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border looking for undocumented people - had pleaded not guilty to the charges of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and home-invasion.

Prosecutors in Pima County accused Forde of being the intellectual author behind the crime, which entailed breaking into the Flores home to steal money. Forde claims to have believed that Raul Flores was involved with drug dealing, and she had planned to use the stolen money to fund her border vigilante group.

Gina Gonzalez, the mother of 9-year-old victim Bricenia Flores and the only witness in the case, took the stand and gave a heartbreaking account of the massacre that unfolded on May 30, 2009, inside her home in Arivaca, Arizona, just 13 miles from the Mexican border.

Gonzalez said she listened as her 9-year-old daughter Bricenia pleaded for her life, only to then hear the shooter reload his gun and kill the little girl.

The Forde decision comes in the aftermath of a deadly public shooting in Tucson that shook the nation last month and left 6 dead, including another 9-year-old, and 13 more injured, among them Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The jury’s decision was an unexpected turn of events for human rights activists who believe Latinos are facing a hostile environment in Arizona, a state they say has been welcoming to extremists and border vigilante groups.

“This is the start of a positive path for our state,” said Isabel Garcia, director of Derechos Humanos, a human rights coalition in Tucson, Arizona.

While she was somewhat surprised by the verdict, Garcia hopes that the highly publicized shooting in Tucson last January, coupled with comments made by president Barak Obama during a memorial to the victims, and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's denunciation of what he called a "vitriolic political rhetoric" in the state, may have made an impression in the minds of Arizonans.

The decision also comes two weeks after the Ninth Circuit court upheld a previous Arizona jury decision against rancher Roger Barnett, on a lawsuit that was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), accusing the rancher of assault on a group of migrants. The federal court found that he could not claim self-defense because none of the people he assaulted had threatened or attacked him. As a result, Barnett was fined $80,000.

Civil rights attorney Jesus Romo believes the Forde decision and the Barnett lawsuit will act as a deterrent for extreme border vigilante groups that engage in criminal behavior.

“If we link this verdict with the civil cases I think it’s going to affect the Minutemen because their impunity is chipping away," said Romo. "On the one hand, criminal justice is taking care of convicting some of them and on the other through the civil cases we are hitting their pocket book,” he added.

Carlos Galindo, a pro-immigrant activist and talk show host on Radio KAZA agrees with Romo, but is not surprised.

He believes the community in Tucson is more progressive than in Maricopa County, a place he says has become a “petri dish” of hateful acts being perpetrated against immigrants.

Just last week, a jury in Maricopa County failed to come to a unanimous decision on the killing of Juan Varela, a Mexican-American who was allegedly murdered by his neighbor, Gary Kelley.

Galindo said he was disappointed that justice was not served in a case that had been labeled by the Maricopa County attorney’s office as a hate crime. Another trial date for Varela’s murder will be schedule this week.

If the jury decides that Forde is eligible for the death penalty, her trial will begin a third phase in which the defense will present evidence to try to persuade the judge against using capital punishment. Once the jury returns the final verdict, there could be a period of 30 days before the judge issues a sentencing.

The defense is expected to present testimony on Forde’s character and could also argue that she was a victim of abuse during her childhood. Prosecutors could put her moral character into question.

“She came onto our radar because she was increasingly taking more extreme action,” said Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Mayo says Forde formed the more extreme MAD because she wasn’t satisfied with what other Minutemen groups were doing.

Before the shooting, there were claims that Forde’s group was going directly after drug cartels. In 2008, Forde claimed that Hispanic intruders raped her in her home— the police dropped the investigation for insufficient evidence— and she suggested the attack could have been retaliation for her undercover investigations of drug-dealers in Washington, according to the ADL.

The ADL also noted that some of Forde’s ardent supporters have ties to white-supremacist groups, including Laine Lawless, who recently created the website Laine has been tied to white-supremacist organizations like the National Socialist Movement and National Vanguard.