Monday, February 6, 2006

Immigration charges in Nashville murder investigation threaten police ties to Hispanic community

Ironic twist: document difficulty may have motivated killings

Metro Police Nashville Davidson CountyThe Nashville Scene reports that police tactics in an ongoing murder investigation have threatened Nashville law enforcement's relationship with the Hispanic community. The victim's husband was both a potential witness and a potential suspect, and the police used immigration-related charges to keep him in police custody. In 2004, Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas started a program called El Protector to create a relationship of trust between the police and the Hispanic community, naming Hispanic officer Juan Borges as the director of the program. In previous interviews with The Tennessean and The Nashville City Paper, both Serpas and Borges have expressed an intention to overcome the Hispanic community's distrust of police by focusing on crime-fighting and not immigration enforcement.

"Since most victims of murder know their assailants, suspicion immediately turned to Aguilar. He was told to change clothes in a squad car and was asked the usual questions. Did he have any enemies? Was he in a gang? Was he involved in the drug trade? Was he in the country legally?"

"When he answered no to the last question, he says, police then took him to police headquarters, where they questioned him for five hours. After that, they arrested him—not for murder but for possessing an invalid green card (which was actually pink), for which Aguilar says he paid $80 but never had the opportunity to use. The Department of Homeland Security dropped identity theft charges nine days later, and he was in jail the whole time."

"According to police spokesman Don Aaron, police were afraid that if they didn’t detain Aguilar, he would have escaped as well. 'We kept him in a place where we knew where he was and in such a way where he would not be able to leave Nashville or Tennessee,' Aaron says."

"That police decision may have had a chilling effect on the willingness of witnesses to come forward. Word quickly spread that police had trumped up charges against Aguilar even though nothing indicated he was the murderer: three co-workers he rode home with would have been able to vouch for his whereabouts before the murder, and there was nothing to indicate he was responsible for the gruesome scene—no bloody clothes, for example."

"The conventional wisdom was that, if police would arrest under bogus circumstances an immigrant whose closest family members were brutally murdered, there was no telling what they might do to witnesses likely in the country without proper documentation."

The crime, which claimed the life of a young mother and her three-year-old daughter but spared her one-month-old son, may have been motivated by the difficulty of obtaining legal documentation in this country. Among the few stolen items were the children's valid social security cards, which could be sold for $10,000 on the black market.

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