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Border agents won’t face charges in Taser-related death of Mexican man

A trainer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Advanced Training Center in Harpers Ferry, W.V. holds a model X26 Taser currently in use by Border Patrol agents and customs officers.

A trainer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Advanced Training Center in Harpers Ferry, W.V. holds a model X26 Taser currently in use by Border Patrol agents and customs officers.

(Brian Bennett / Los Angeles Times)

Federal prosecutors will not bring charges in the case of a Mexican man who died of a heart attack after he was hit and struck with a Taser by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at a border checkpoint in California five years ago, the Justice Department said Friday after closing the investigation.

Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, 42, died May 31, 2010, days after the confrontation at the San Ysidro border station in San Diego. Hernandez-Rojas had been caught crossing the border illegally and was being taken back to Mexico when, according to agents, he began kicking and punching them.

The agents said Hernandez-Rojas continued to struggle even after he was handcuffed and hit with batons while on the ground. One agent then shocked him at least twice with a Taser, and agents zip-tied his legs.

Soon after, his breathing slowed and he became unresponsive, witnesses said. He was pronounced dead two days later after he was removed from life support at a nearby hospital.

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The death is one of the border agency’s most controversial use-of-force cases involving a Taser, which fires a painful but nonlethal electric charge intended to subdue a suspect.

A statement issued by the Justice Department said the electro-shocks were among several “contributory factors,” including methamphetamine intoxication, that led to Hernandez-Rojas’ death. Autopsies concluded he had suffered a heart attack.

But federal prosecutors concluded the evidence was “insufficient” to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against the agents because they would be “unable to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt” that agents had “willfully” caused his death.

“Specifically, the federal government cannot disprove the agents’ claim that they used reasonable force in an attempt to subdue and restrain a combative detainee so that he could be placed inside a transport vehicle,” the statement said.

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Prosecutors also concluded they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernandez-Rojas’ death was a homicide. They said they found “no evidence that any of the federal agents deployed the Taser or restrained Hernandez-Rojas with malice” or had committed an unlawful act.

Cellphone videos that surfaced after the confrontation show Hernandez-Rojas on the ground in handcuffs, surrounded by a dozen agents and customs officers. In one video, he could be heard screaming for help.

The San Diego County medical examiner had ruled the case a homicide but said it wasn’t clear what role the Taser played, adding that Hernandez-Rojas had an enlarged heart.

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After PBS televised a documentary on the case, 16 members of Congress signed a letter calling for greater accountability when border agents use force.

Tasers were issued to border agents starting in 2008 in an effort to curb agents’ use of deadly force on the border.

But a Los Angeles Times analysis found that the devices, which deliver a painful and paralyzing electrical charge, were misused in scores of cases. Two other men in addition to Hernandez-Rojas died in Taser incidents involving the Border Patrol.

As part of the lengthy federal investigation into his death, prosecutors reviewed San Diego Police Department records, witness accounts, videos of the incident, Mexican law enforcement accounts, medical records, autopsy reports and other evidence, according to the statement.

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A civil lawsuit is still pending.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union called the decision “a rebuke to accountability” and said Hernandez-Rojas’ family had been “denied justice.”

“If CBP were a state or local police force, its record of impunity would have led to judicial intervention years ago and reforms like body-worn cameras would not be stalled,” said the statement from Mitra Ebadolahi, a staff attorney.

brian.bennett@latimes.com | @ByBrianBennett on Twitter

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joseph.tanfani@latimes.com | @Jtanfani on Twitter

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