A Texas deputy sheriff who fired shots at a fleeing vehicle after the driver tried to run him down faces 10 years in prison for injuring one of the passengers, a Mexican national being smuggled illegally into the United States.
The U.S. attorney, who won lengthy prison terms last year for two U.S. Border Patrol agents in the shooting of a drug-smuggling suspect, also prosecuted Edwards County Deputy Sheriff Guillermo F. Hernandez, who is to be sentenced next month.
The deputy’s boss, Sheriff Donald G. Letsinger, said his officer — who had been on the job for a year — “followed the letter of the law” in defending himself in the April 2005 incident and questioned why the government brought charges.
“This is a fine young man, and I just don’t believe he committed the wrong of which he was accused,” Sheriff Letsinger said. “I have never had anything hurt me so badly as this prosecution. We’ve got to make this right.”
Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, called the prosecution and conviction of Hernandez, known to his friends as “Gilmer,” “another example of how the federal government is more concerned about people [who are] illegally invading America than it is about the men who protect America.”
“Once again, our government is on the wrong side of the border war,” Mr. Poe said.
The deputy’s Dec. 1 conviction has enraged his hometown of Rocksprings, Texas, population 1,250, where “Free Gilmer” signs have been posted. The Baptist church is paying the deputy’s mortgage and others have come up with costs for the family’s truck, propane and water bills.
Hernandez, 25, and his wife, Ashley, have a 4-month-old daughter.
“The town is outraged that this has happened to our deputy,” said the Rev. Albert Green, pastor at the First Baptist Church. “Those people were in this country illegally, and they tried to run him down. They were the criminals, but the prosecutors made our deputy out to be the criminal.
“I do not know a single person who doesn’t feel Gilmer was prosecuted for doing his job,” said Mr. Green, who is the deputy’s pastor. “I do not know a finer, more well-behaved gentleman. He would not purposely or willfully hurt anyone.”
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, appointed in October 2001 by President Bush, said Hernandez fired shots at the vehicle as it sped away “knowing it was occupied with the nine individuals,” at least seven of whom were illegal aliens — some of whom later were called to testify for the government.
Hernandez was convicted after a jury trial in U.S. District Court in Del Rio, Texas, 75 miles southwest of Rocksprings — found guilty of violating “under the color of law” the civil rights of Maricela Rodriguez-Garcia, a Mexican national.
The woman was struck in the lip by bullet or other metal fragments after an 11:50 p.m. traffic stop in Rocksprings in April 2005. Reports said Hernandez fired shots at the blue Chevrolet Suburban’s rear tires as it sped off after being stopped for running a red light.
Acquitted on a second count regarding injury to another passenger, he will be sentenced March 12 at the Del Rio court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Baumann, who prosecuted the case, told reporters that the law does not give law-enforcement officers the right to use “deadly force to stop a car unless it poses an imminent threat to the officer or another person. If the car is going away from you, it’s not even a close call.”