TIJUANA -- Andrew Tahmooressi, the former Marine who has been charged with violating Mexican gun laws, arrived at a federal courthouse here Monday morning in a dramatic, and slightly ironic, motorcade of armored vehicles, blaring sirens and black-clad men toting very big guns.
Were Mexican police escorting him from El Hongo prison in Tecate expecting trouble?
Maybe. After all, there was so much Fox News-whipped hysteria around Tahmooressi’s arrest that his mother, Jill, had to finally ask folks to calm down and stop pushing idiotic ideas like breaking her son out of jail, a la SEAL Team Six.
Reporters were not allowed inside the courtroom where Tahmooressi's hearing took place. They weren’t even allowed inside the building. Instead, they camped out next door, on the shady lanai of a Starbucks appointed with ceiling fans and a generous number of electrical outlets.
And the sidewalk of Paseo de los Heroes, a wide boulevard studded with heroic statues (Abraham Lincoln, Cuauhtemoc, Ignacio Zaragoza) became the site of impromptu press conferences for the case’s warring sides.
An hour after Tahmooressi, 25, in a white T-shirt, gray sweat pants and handcuffs, was whisked into the court, journalists swarmed their first target: Javier Lopez Lopez, attorney for two Mexican customs officers who were called to testify about their actions on the night of Tahmooressi’s arrest.
On the night of the arrest, said Lopez Lopez, his clients conducted themselves according to the strictest protocol after Tahmooressi crossed the border late the night of March 31 with a loaded shotgun, rifle and pistol, plus 400 rounds of ammunition. There was so much paperwork to fill out, so many rules to follow, he said, that it took the officers eight hours to deliver Tahmooressi to prosecutors, to contact the U.S. consulate and to arrange for a translator.
While Lopez Lopez was surrounded, Tahmooressi’s mother slipped into the courthouse unnoticed for the 10:30 a.m. hearing. She has attended each of her son’s hearings and has launched a fundraising drive to cover his legal costs, which, she has told reporters, forced Andrew to liquidate the $65,000 he saved during his four years on active duty.
Later, after the five-hour hearing ended, Tahmooressi's attorney, Fernando Benitez, explained his two-pronged defense to reporters.
First, he said, Tahmooressi did not intend to break the law because he never meant to cross into Mexico with his legally purchased American guns. “This is not a crime that can be committed accidentally,” Benitez said. “It requires a criminal intent.”
Second, he said, customs officers illegally searched his truck and detained him for an impermissably long time before handing him over to prosecutors.
“We, beyond a reasonable doubt, are convinced that Mr. Tahmooressi’s human rights were trampled under the pretense of following an administrative protocol for a customs procedure,” said Benitez.
Although eight hours may not seem like a particularly long time – especially as Tahmooressi crossed the border late at night--Benitez said that under Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution, a suspect must be delivered to the proper authorities “immediately.”
Since the federal prosecutor’s office was mere minutes away from the border, he argued, “eight hours would be unusual and would constitute a prolonged detention and would constitute a violation of his civil rights.”
Benitez said he also argued in court Monday that the search of Tahmooressi’s truck was illegal because the search warrant was dated three days before the event occurred. Customs officers, he said, testified that they had a stack of blank documents, pre-signed and pre-dated, for use in such cases.
“I’m gonna run wild with it,” he said. “Only the administrator of customs can authorize that search.”
Benitez was was brought into the case by U.S. criminal defense attorney Phil Dunn, president of a Serving California, a Malibu-based Christian nonprofit group that assists military families, crime victims and convicts. Dunn is also a co-founder of Baja Christian Ministries, and once helped build a chapel inside the state prison in Ensenada. Through Dunn’s connections, Tahmooressi has been able to develop relationships with pastors, who visit him twice a week and keep his spirits up.
I spoke with Dunn before and after the Monday hearing. Unlike some of Tahmooressi’s more rabid supporters, Dunn’s respect for the Mexican legal system is refreshing.
“Every day, which is quite remarkable, Andrew gets two hours to make a phone call, which is considerably more merciful treatment than any prisoner in the United States gets,” he told me. “I know that their constitution provides for substantially more rights under these circumstances than if he was in the United States.” And, he added, “Mexico is a signatory to certain human rights treaties that the U.S. is not a signatory to, and this case could be appealed all the way up to the Human Rights court.”
Yet in the event that Tahmooressi is convicted of bringing guns into Mexico, there will be no opportunity to plead for leniency based on his distinguished service as a Marine who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, nor for what Dunn and his mother have described as his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There is no leniency under the Mexican sentencing guidelines in this case,” said Benitez. “We need to go for broke in this case. We need to prove innocence. Or we need to prove [misconduct by customs officials]. Otherwise, we are going to get jail time.”
No new hearing date has been set. Benitez predicted the case will drag on for months, and said that Judge Victor Octavio Luna Escobedo will make a final ruling after listening to closing arguments from both sides. Tahmooressi faces between seven and 14 years in prison if he is found guilty.
Out on the sidewalk in the soggy afternoon heat, a Mexican reporter noted that Benitez seemed “less enthusiastic” than he had in June, at Tahmooressi’s last hearing.
“If it seems like I am a little serious,” he said, “it’s because my mind is racing at a thousand miles an hour right now because I have to make some very gutsy calls.”
The prosecution, he said, has presented its case, so he must decide whether his defense is complete. At the moment, he said, he is waiting for the Mexican Foreign Service to retrieve a recording of the 911 call that Tahmooressi made to the U.S. moments after he was detained by Mexican border officials. The call, he said, supports Tahmooressi’s contention that he took a wrong turn and crossed into Mexico by accident.
“I crossed the border by accident and I have guns in my truck and they’re trying to take my guns from me,” Tahmooressi tells the operator.
“There’s nothing I can help you with, sir,” she says. “I do apologize. You’re not on American soil anymore.”
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