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Leniency sought in sentencing of sheriff’s deputy

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Texas sheriff has asked a federal judge for leniency during sentencing this month for one of his deputies, who faces 10 years in prison for firing shots at a fleeing vehicle loaded with illegal aliens after the deputy said the driver tried to run him down.

Edwards County Sheriff Donald G. Letsinger, a 25-year law-enforcement veteran, told the court Deputy Guillermo F. Hernandez, known to his friends as "Gilmer," faced imprisonment because prosecutors did not disclose all the evidence, implied wrongdoing when there was none and wrongly told the jury that evidence may have been tampered with.

"As God is my witness, Deputy Hernandez is a good and honorable young man ... who told the truth when he said the driver of the vehicle tried to run him over," Sheriff Letsinger said in a letter. "He was shooting at the tires trying to stop a vehicle whose driver was evading arrest, and he had every right to arrest and detain the driver.

"Deputy Hernandez did not intentionally harm anyone," he said.

Hernandez is scheduled for sentencing March 19 in federal court in Del Rio, Texas, before visiting U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson of Fort Smith, Ark.

Sheriff Letsinger asked the court to sentence the deputy, who has been in custody since his Dec. 1 conviction, to time served. He said the conviction and incarceration has enraged his hometown of Rocksprings, Texas, population 1,250, where dozens of "Free Gilmer" signs have been posted.

Hernandez, 25, was prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office last year also won convictions and 11- and 12-year prison sentences for U.S. Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, who shot a drug-smuggling suspect in the buttocks as he fled back into Mexico.

The deputy, who had been with the department for a year, was convicted after a jury trial in Del Rio where he was 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 a 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.

Sheriff Letsinger said an investigation found that Hernandez approached the vehicle and found only the driver was sitting upright and suspected that the eight others were illegal aliens. He said the driver, after being asked to step out of the vehicle, pulled forward and turned into Hernandez -- fleeing from what the sheriff described as the deputy's "legal stop."

Thinking the driver had tried to run him over, he said Hernandez fired at and hit the vehicle's rear tires. He said at least one person in the vehicle told investigators that the driver had turned it into the deputy.

Mrs. Rodriguez-Garcia, Ivonne Hernandez Morales and Candido Garcia Perez, all occupants in the vehicle, told investigators that they paid $2,000 to be taken across the Rio Grande from Acuna, Mexico. They said they later met the vehicle's driver and a guide, who were to take them to Austin and Dallas.