A federal jury found a Department of Homeland Security pilot not guilty Friday of lying about his alleged role in the drowning of a would-be illegal immigrant swimming across the Rio Grande toward Texas, but couldn't reach a verdict on three other similar counts.
Jurors acquitted James Peters on one count of making false statements to federal investigators looking into the 2005 drowning death of Carlos Delgadillo Martinez. A judge declared a mistrial on the three other counts of the same charge.
Prosecutors accused Peters, 41, of lying about flying his helicopter low in an attempt to force Delgadillo and another person back to Mexico. Officials say the force of the turbulence from the helicopter's rotor blades made Delgadillo lose his grip on an inner tube.
But defense attorneys tried to create doubt in the jurors' minds by suggesting that surveillance video prosecutors said showed Peters flying over Delgadillo and the other person was not clear, that it didn't indicate how far above the men the aircraft actually was and that it presented no proof anyone drowned.
The jury indicated several times during its deliberations, which began Wednesday, that it couldn't reach a unanimous verdict on all four counts. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake resisted prosecutors' efforts to have jurors continue working, saying they had deliberated extensively.
Peters, who had faced up to five years in prison if convicted, cried after the judge read the verdict. After the jury left the courtroom, he hugged his wife and three friends, including two other Homeland Security pilots.
"He's relieved," said Thomas Berg, one of Peters' attorneys. "He's hoping the government will dismiss the other counts and this nightmare can be over."
Federal prosecutors said they respected the jury's verdict and told Lake they would let him know by late next week if they planned to retry Peters on the three undecided counts or drop those charges.
"It brings us no joy to prosecute police officers but when we have evidence of police misconduct, we have no choice but to go forward with the prosecution," said prosecutor Ruben Perez.
Prosecutors had argued that surveillance video clearly showed Peters flew his helicopter over the immigrants, getting as close as 100 feet to an international bridge in Laredo, in an attempt to drive them back to Mexico as they tried crossing into the United States on Dec. 14, 2005. Delgadillo's body was found later that day.
Prosecutor Joseph Magliolo said Peters used the helicopter aggressively to force the immigrants back.
"It was a case that had to be tried," Magliolo said after the verdict.
Berg said Peters should never have been indicted because there was no proof he flew too close to the bridge or that he was lying when he told investigators he didn't recall flying over any individuals near the bridge that day.
Berg also said there was no proof of anyone drowning on the video and that additional doubt about whether Peters had anything to do with the drowning was created by testimony from a Border Patrol agent who said at the trial that after the helicopter left, he saw two men get out of the water on the Mexican side of the river.
"The jury didn't have enough evidence to make a decision," Berg said. "The jury did its job."
Prosecutors acknowledged the border agent's testimony and said it was hard to tell from the video if the inner tube that Delgadillo was holding flipped over. It was unclear if the individuals whom the agent saw getting out of the river were the same ones encountered by the helicopter.
Peters, who was suspended without pay after being indicted in January, is currently stationed in Maine. He has worked for Homeland Security since 1997, becoming a helicopter pilot in 2003.