HOUSTON -- A federal jury found a Department of Homeland Security pilot not guilty Friday of lying about his role in the drowning of a would-be illegal immigrant in the Rio Grande, but couldn't reach a verdict on three of four counts.
Jurors found James Peters not guilty 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 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.
Peters, who had faced up to five years in prison if convicted, cried as the judge read the verdict. After the jury left the courtroom, he hugged his wife and three friends.
During closing arguments, prosecutors told jurors that surveillance video clearly shows 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.
"Peters decides to try to push them back, force them back," said prosecutor Joseph Magliolo. "He takes progressively more aggressive action to the folks in the water."
Lawyers for Peters, 41, argued that prosecutors presented flimsy evidence and that the video doesn't clearly show how far above the men the helicopter actually flew.
Thomas Berg, one of Peters' attorneys, told jurors the pilot didn't lie to investigators when asked if he encountered illegal immigrants that day and whether he flew close to the bridge. Berg said Peters believed he did not fly too close to the bridge and didn't recall flying over any individuals near the bridge that day.
"The dangerous work (pilots like Peters) do in trying to secure our border is to protect you," Berg told jurors. "He was doing his job that day."
Berg also said there's no proof of anyone drowning on the video.
"This is not a case about killing somebody in a river," he said. "You don't see anybody die in this video. You don't know how that man drowned."
Berg said a Border Patrol agent testified that after the helicopter left, he saw two men get out of the water on the Mexican side of the river. In his closing statement, Magliolo acknowledged that the border agent had said this, and that from the video it can be hard to tell whether the inner tube that Delgadillo was holding flipped over. It's unclear if the individuals whom the agent saw getting out of the river were the same ones encountered by the helicopter.
But "Peters had contact with the (illegal immigrants) at the bridge. The video shows that," Magliolo said.
Peters, who is currently stationed in Maine, has worked for Homeland Security since 1997, becoming a helicopter pilot in 2003.