In a surprise move in a controversial case, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona is opposing a routine motion by the family of murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry to qualify as crime victims in the eyes of the court.
The family asked to intervene as victims in the case against Jamie Avila, the 23-year-old Phoenix man who purchased the guns allegedly used to kill Terry. Such motions are routinely approved by prosecutors, but may be opposed by defense attorneys.
However in this case, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke argues because the family was not "directly or proximately harmed" by the illegal purchase of the murder weapon, it does not meet the definition of "crime victim" in the Avila case. Burke claims the victim of the Avila's gun purchases, "is not any particular person, but society in general."
Prominent litigator and the former U.S. Attorney in Florida, Kendall Coffey disagrees.
"The government apparently is saying they're not victims, even though it was a federal crime that put the murder weapon in the hands of the killer of Brian Terry," says Coffey. "They are simply rights of respect, rights of communication and the right to be heard."
Coffey and others wonder if Burke has a conflict. It was his office that led Operation Fast and Furious. The operation, while executed by agents for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was managed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley. Hurley drafted the response to the family's motion. It was signed by Burke.
Congressional investigators are expected to subpoena both to appear before the House Government and Oversight Committee next month to answer questions about the flawed operation that put some 2,000 weapons in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel.
"The government leaders responsible for the tragic mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious have a lot of explaining to do before Congress. But at the same time, they still have a duty under federal law to give answers, to consult and extend respect to the family," said Coffey.
Under the federal Crime Victims Rights Act, the Terry family would have the right to confer with prosecutors and speak at Avila's sentencing. Some speculate that the U.S. Attorney's Office may cut a deal with Avila in exchange for information to be used against his associates. That deal could mean little or no jail time, and a controversial sentencing day in the courtroom. Having the Terry family fight that deal, could further embarrass and complicate Burke's case.
Burke may also be trying to protect the federal government. The family may pursue a wrongful death claim against federal agents, including Burke himself.
"If the evidence shows Brian's death was proximately caused by the negligence of government, there may be a cause of action," said Paul Charlton, the family's attorney.
Coffey says that puts Burke in a tough spot.
"The government's already been put on notice that they might be facing a wrongful death action by the family. And you have to wonder if the government's efforts to deny the family the status of 'crime victims' is part of a strategy to avoid legal responsibility for some of the tragic mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious," he said.
Burke refused comment when asked why he opposed the family’s motion and his possible conflict of interest.