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Court upholds conviction of smuggler who held migrant for ransom

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WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Monday upheld the conviction of a human trafficker who was involved in a scheme to kidnap a young Honduran immigrant in Tucson and demand ransom from his mother.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jose Antonio Liera-Morales’ right to confront his accuser was not violated by testimony of federal agents, one of whom testified to calls from the frantic mother who feared for her son’s life.

Attorneys on both sides of the case declined comment on Monday’s ruling.

The case began in December 2011 when Liera-Morales helped smuggle Franklin Aguilar-Avila, 18, into Tucson, then held him there and demanded ransom from the teen’s mother in Houston, according to court documents.

After several threatening phone calls from the captors, the mother, Sonia Avila, called 911 and was referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tucson.

ICE agents in Tucson and Houston worked with Avila to set up a fake payoff, telling Aguilar’s captors to meet a man named “Tony” to collect their money. “Tony” was an ICE agent.

The captors skipped the first meeting, but agents set up a second meeting where they arrested Liera-Morales and found Aguilar in the back of the truck.

Liera-Morales admitted to police after his arrest that he had picked up Aguilar and two other immigrants in the desert south of Tucson and that he told Avila she owed $750 for her son. He said he had been working for the human-trafficking ring to pay off the smuggling fee he owed for his own illegal entry earlier in 2011, according to court documents.

At trial, he denied making any ransom demands or threats on Aguilar’s life. But a jury convicted him on four counts – including hostage-taking and transportation of an alien for profit, among others – and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

On appeal, he argued that one ICE agent’s testimony – on what Avila told him about the calls setting up the sting – violated his right to confront his accuser and should not have been allowed at trial.

But the appeals court rejected that argument, saying Avila’s statements were “impromptu excited utterances” made during a hostage situation. The agent’s actions were just “good police work directed at resolving a life-threatening hostage situation,” the court said, and could be admitted.

Liera-Morales also challenged another agent’s testimony about statements made in a post-arrest interview. He said they violated the Rules of Completeness, and that he should have been able to enter exculpatory statements from the same interview, but the appeals court disagreed.

The court said those rules only applied to written and recorded statements and the lower court’s decision to allow the statements “did not overlook considerations of fairness.”