TUCSON, AZ — A judge banned an Arizona border activist charged with harboring immigrants from mentioning President Donald Trump during his retrial, which began Tuesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins granted a motion by prosecutors to bar the mention of the president during the second trial of Scott Warren, just before opening statements began. His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury last June.
"There should be no politics in this case. I'm not going to allow it," Collins said.
The trial has garnered international attention, and Warren's supporters say humanitarian aid work is increasingly under attack. Warren, 37, is one of nine members of the group No More Deaths who have been charged with crimes related to their work, although he's the only one facing felony charges. He could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The group leaves water jugs in the desert, searches for injured or dead migrants and has a camp near the border where members aid people.
Greg Kuykendall, Warren's attorney, said Trump is responsible for the prosecution of his client, and contended the Republican president should be mentioned "as frequently and repeatedly as anyone wants."
Warren contends he was fulfilling his mission as a humanitarian when he helped two Central American men at a camp run by No More Deaths in January 2018. Prosecutors have said the men were not injured and that Warren broke the law by helping them.
They argued in a motion last month that any mention of Trump or his administration would be irrelevant and could unfairly influence the jury.
During opening statements on Tuesday, federal prosecutor Anna Wright urged jurors to find Warren guilty on both charges, maintaining that he intended "to shelter them from the Border Patrol."
She told them to ignore "distractions" that would come up during the trial. "This case is not about those distractions, this is about the law."
The defense countered that the men went into the barn on their own and Warren was surprised to find then when he arrived.
Kuykendall said the government's case was built on "false assumptions" about Warren's intentions.
"It's a house of cards built on a faulty foundation," he said.
Gregg P. Leslie, the executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University's Law School, said he was surprised the judge granted the prosecution's motion, noting that prosecutors brought up Trump during the first trial.
Leslie, whose clinic helped news organizations including The Associated Press in obtaining sealed documents related to the case earlier this year, said the judge's decision highlighted what a "lightning rod certain people have become regarding these issues."
David Alan Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School, said it's not surprising that the judge granted the prosecution's request.
"What's striking here is that the prosecutors are afraid that the mere mention of the president's name would be enough to get the jury prejudiced against the prosecution, which is a sign of how deeply polarizing the president and this administration are," Sklansky said.
Warren, from the small town of Ajo about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the border, faces two felony counts of harboring. His arrest came months after Border Patrol agents began an investigation into the No More Deaths camp, according to documents released after news organizations sued to obtain them.
The documents show that in April 2017, an anonymous Ajo resident told Border Patrol officials that he suspected members of the group were harboring immigrants in their building, known as "The Barn."
About three months later, federal and local officials detained members for allegedly vandalizing a camera at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where they regularly left water jugs.
In November 2017, agents interviewed residents who said they had noticed more traffic and littering outside "The Barn."
Agents eventually encountered a man who said he had traveled across the desert with two other men who were picked up by a van.
Suspecting they might be at the No More Deaths building, agents began watching "The Barn" on Jan. 17, 2018, arresting Warren and the two Central American migrants. The men were deported after providing video testimony.
Thousands of immigrants have died crossing the border since the mid-1990s, when increased enforcement pushed many to Arizona's scorching desert.