A South Texas judge ruled Wednesday that a 16-year-old boy accused of killing nine illegal immigrants in a crash while fleeing Border Patrol should be prosecuted as an adult.
Hidalgo County District Judge Mario Ramirez said prosecutors had shown Junior Benjamin Rodriguez was sophisticated enough to be tried as an adult and that it was important to send a message to other teens who would consider smuggling immigrants and running from authorities. Ramirez later arraigned the teen as an adult on nine counts of murder and set bond at $25,000 per count.
Ramirez ordered reporters to not photograph Rodriguez, publish the names of federal agents and other witnesses who testified in the case or report in detail any evidence from this week's proceeding.
The Associated Press plans to appeal the judge's order.
"We're very troubled by this act of prior restraint in the courtroom today, and we plan to pursue all of our available legal remedies," said Laura Malone, the AP's interim general counsel.
Rodriguez was 15 last April when authorities say he fled Border Patrol in Palmview while driving a minivan packed with 17 illegal immigrants. A Border Patrol agent testified at a hearing last year that another person had bailed out when Rodriguez was initially stopped, but then sped off when the agent approached the van.
What happened next is disputed. A witness testified last year that he saw a Border Patrol vehicle bump the van before it crashed, sending immigrants flying onto the ground. But the Border Patrol agent testified last year the van had already crashed on a highway frontage road by the time he arrived.
On Wednesday, the third day of the hearing, a juvenile probation officer testified that his department recommended the boy should be transferred to the adult justice system due to the severity of the crime.
But a psychologist testifying for the defense said that a 15-year-old is poorly equipped to consider all consequences of his actions, particularly in a stressful situation. She said sending the boy into the adult system would be harmful for him and the community.
Prosecutors hammered the point that if Rodriguez had not fled Border Patrol the immigrants he was carrying would still be alive and he would likely be free. Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen.
"They (smuggling organizations) continue to use juveniles because they know the consequences are less serious for them," said prosecutor Amy Ortega.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Jaime Aleman asked the judge to differentiate between intent and an accident.
"It was a chaos of the moment act," Aleman said. "This was not an intentional act."