SACRAMENTO — A federal judge has ordered a new trial for two undocumented Mexican immigrants convicted of growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants in northern California.
U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell, Jr.’s ruling overturned jury verdicts that could have sent Miguel Navarro Viayra, 25, and Manuel Alvarez Guerra, 22, to prison for 10 years.
Both were arrested two years ago at a remote Mendocino National Forest camp and charged with conspiracy, manufacturing marijuana plants and possessing firearms to facilitate drug trafficking. A jury found the two guilty of conspiracy and manufacturing, but deadlocked on the gun charges.
The judge’s ruling bolsters a popular defense argument that undocumented immigrants, believing themselves recruited for honest work, become hostage laborers for major marijuana growers. Federal prosecutors had portrayed the pair as opportunists trying to make fast money growing pot.
Viayra and Guerra told jurors they had no access to weapons and faced armed guards who promised to shoot them if they tried to leave. Viayra said he was hired in Fresno for a Sacramento construction job. Guerra said, while in Mexico, he was offered a job cutting wood in northern California. The two were stripping marijuana leaves the day before their arrest.
In Damrell’s 21-page ruling issued Wednesday, he noted “the lack of direct evidence connecting these defendants to the weapons and ammunition, and circumstances of these two young, virtually penniless, likely illiterate, and illegal (immigrants) who were found abandoned in a remote camp in the wilderness with apparently no idea where they were.”
The two were sleeping when 10 law enforcement officers raided the site. Nearly 20 others, including the growers, fled without being caught, court testimony indicated.