Arizona rancher Roger Barnett initially faced the possibility of paying $32 million to compensate several illegal immigrants he stopped at gunpoint on his land. He walked away instead with a verdict that rejected any notion he violated the trespassers' civil rights and affirmed that U.S. citizens can still detain aliens crossing the border.
What remains to be seen, though, is what impact the $77,800 in damages that a jury Tuesday ordered Mr. Barnett to pay will have on America's larger immigration debate and the efforts of some illegals to get compensation from a country they aren't even allowed to enter.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), an immigrant-advocacy group that helped bring the lawsuit, had claimed Mr. Barnett violated the civil rights of 16 illegal immigrants he stopped crossing his border property after they had illegally sneaked into the United States. MALDEF sought $2 million in actual and punitive damages for each of the plaintiffs.
The outcome fell far short of the advocacy group's wishes.
U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, for starters, dismissed the claims of 10 of the illegals because they did not testify at trial. He then tossed related conspiracy complaints against Mr. Barnett's wife, Barbara, and his brother Donald, saying illegal immigrants had no constitutionally protected right to travel in the United States.
Judge Roll said the Barnetts, who live in close proximity to the border, could reasonably assume that large groups of people they encountered hiding or trespassing on their property were doing so with the aid of smugglers.
He said entering the United States illegally was a federal felony, for which a citizen's arrest was authorized under Arizona law.
Ultimately, the jury of four men and four women decided that Mr. Barnett did not violate the civil rights of the remaining six plaintiffs and was not guilty of false imprisonment, battery and conspiracy as charged in the suit.
"Citizens who live along the border, like citizens anywhere in the country, have a right to act in such instances," said David T. Hardy, one of Mr. Barnett's attorneys. "The vindication of the Barnetts should clear the way for other Americans to act responsibly without fear of specious and politically motivated lawsuits."
The jury awarded $17,802 to the six remaining illegal immigrants on their claims of assault and the infliction of emotional distress - $7,500 each to two, $1,400 each to two others and $1 each to the remaining pair. It also ordered Mr. Barnett to pay $60,000 in punitive damages.
MALDEF lawyer David Urias told reporters in Tucson his clients were disappointed with the verdict, "but I think that overall this was a victory for the plaintiffs." A co-counsel, Nina Perales, called the verdict "a resounding victory that sends a message that vigilante violence against immigrants will not be tolerated."
But Mr. Hardy saw it differently, describing the verdict as an "80 percent victory" for the Barnetts, adding that he planned to appeal the decision based on what he called "solid grounds."
A 2006 Arizona constitutional amendment bars awards of punitive damages to illegal immigrants, and Mr. Barnett's attorneys are expected to argue that the jury was given flawed instructions by the judge, which led to the award of those damages.
Carmen Mercer, vice president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC), said the verdict showed that citizens have a right to protect their property. She said she would hardly call the jury verdict a victory since "the plaintiffs are only getting a small fraction of what they were seeking."
Ms. Mercer, a business owner in Tombstone, Ariz., and a naturalized U.S. citizen from Germany, said those who live on the Southwest border find it "emotionally distressing" to see the daily destruction caused by illegal immigration.
She also noted that five of the plaintiffs in the Barnett lawsuit are now living in the U.S. with visa applications pending, "which tells me that as of this moment, they are still illegally in this country.
"What, pray tell, is our government asking of them in terms of paying a fine for breaking the law by entering this country unlawfully?" said Ms. Mercer. "Instead, they are being rewarded by getting a visa."
Glenn Spencer, president of the American Border Patrol, a private organization that uses high-tech equipment to highlight what it calls the "crisis of illegal immigration," said he worked with Mr. Barnett for more than 10 years and knew he had been "very careful when dealing with the illegal trespassers."
A resident of Sierra Vista, Ariz., Mr. Spencer called the lawsuit "a malicious prosecution," but said it had shed light on the fact that the federal government has failed to protect the nation's borders.
"I was in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago when Roger Barnett submitted testimony to a congressional committee describing the terrible situation on the border," Mr. Spencer said. "Now, 10 years later, Roger is sued by open-borders activists, while at the same time the federal government is constructing a vehicle barrier along the border south of his ranch and lying to the public by saying it is a fence.
"Roger Barnett is a hero and a victim - a victim of a duplicitous government that has no intention of protecting the border with Mexico," he said.
Shannon McGauley, founder and president of the Texas Minutemen, called the verdict "a very important ruling," saying it reaffirmed the "Castle Doctrine," now applicable in both Arizona and Texas. The doctrine protects people who use force to defend themselves from an intruder by presuming that a person defending their property "acted in self-defense."
"On our border watches, we've been very careful to just observe and report illegal aliens to prevent such suits," he said.
Michael Hethmon, another of Mr. Barnett's attorneys, said MALDEF and other illegal-immigrant advocacy groups have threatened local governments and citizens for years with lawsuits to intimidate them from protecting their communities and property.
"But the Barnett family are Americans who refused to be intimidated," he said.
The lawsuit was based on a March 7, 2004, incident in which Mr. Barnett approached a group of illegal immigrants while he patrolled his 22,000-acre Cross Rail Ranch near Douglas, carrying a gun and accompanied by his dog. The ranch has become a major corridor for armed drug and immigrant smugglers.
The suit charged the Barnetts "engaged in a private campaign and conspired with each other and others to 'hunt' and detain against their will, and at gunpoint, Latino migrants or presumed migrants such as plaintiffs."
But Mr. Hardy argued that the Barnett ranch is frequently crossed by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers and his client was checking for damages when his dog started barking and ran off into the desert. He said Mr. Barnett followed and came across a large group of people "apparently trying to hide."
"Since drug smugglers are frequently armed, I drew my handgun," Mr. Barnett said in an April 18, 2007, deposition. "I holstered it after assuring myself they were not armed."