Marines Stand By Comrade in Border Death Inquiry

From Associated Press

Two Marines testified before a grand jury Thursday and afterward expressed solidarity with a fellow serviceman who shot a teenager to death on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lance Cpl. James M. Blood and Cpl. Roy Torres Jr. expressed remorse over the death of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. at the hands of Cpl. Clemente Banuelos. But they said they didn't think Banuelos should be charged.

Banuelos "possibly saved my life," Blood said after testifying before the panel convened in Marfa, Texas.

Banuelos' attorney, Jack Zimmermann, has maintained that his client shot Hernandez as the youth was aiming his .22-caliber rifle at Blood, one of four Camp Pendleton Marines. The group was assisting the Border Patrol in an anti-drug mission near the Rio Grande on the day Hernandez was killed.

"I would have backed up my devil dogs any way I can," Torres added. He said he would not have changed a thing.

The two and Lance Cpl. Ronald Wieler Jr. spent the day testifying before the grand jury, which was meeting for the second time in two weeks to hear evidence in the controversial case.

Hernandez's death has caused the military to reevaluate assisting civilian authorities in drug interdiction efforts and continues to raise questions about using soldiers to support domestic police operations.

The Presidio County panel first met in the county seat in Marfa on July 30 but came away without making a decision.

Dist. Atty. Albert Valadez said his office had to issue new subpoenas for some federal officials. He did not identify which agencies the officials represented.

All three Marines who were with Banuelos have been given limited immunity.

Their testimony cannot be used against them, but they still could face charges if prosecutors ever make a case against the three without relying on what the Marines told the panel, said Blood's attorney, Gerald Crow.

Hernandez was killed May 20 after crossing paths with the four-man Marine team assigned to watch a suspected drug-trafficking route in Redford, a tiny border community 200 miles southeast of El Paso and 60 miles south of Marfa.

Military officials said Hernandez shot twice at the Marines with a .22-caliber rifle and was about to fire again when Banuelos killed him with a single shot from an M-16.

Zimmermann said Thursday that Hernandez, who had no criminal history, fit the profile of a drug trafficker that was given to the Marines in their training for the mission.

But Texas Rangers and local prosecutors investigating the shooting said they have evidence that conflicts with the Marines' story. An autopsy report suggests that Hernandez wasn't facing Banuelos when he was shot.

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The military has said it supports the Marines' position but has also suspended all front-line missions that would have put troops on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Defense Department is considering whether the armed forces' involvement is appropriate in domestic anti-drug efforts and is looking for a way to protect troops from criminal and civil liability during such missions.

The military is discussing the possibility of seeking immunity for troops in those operations, which have been conducted since 1989. The immunity would only be extended if the soldiers followed established rules of engagement or agreements with local law enforcement agencies.

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