The murder conviction of two Mexican Los Zetas hit squad members in the ambush shooting death of a federal agent was overturned Tuesday by a federal appeals court, which held the federal murder statute does not apply internationally.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeal split with two other circuits to conclude the federal murder statute Jose Garcia Sota and Jesus Quezada Pina, could not be held liable for murder in the death of ICE agent Jaime Zapata. But the court did uphold the attempted murder of Agent Victor Avila in the same ambush and the use of a firearm in commission of a violent crime.
The appeals court ordered the case returned to the trial judge for re-sentencing, which upsets the life prison sentences they received.
In 2011, Garcia Sota and Quezada Pina were part of a group of cartel members who targeted an armored SUV with diplomatic plates driven on a busy highway north of Mexico City, Mexico, with Zapata and Avila. The cartel fired into the car using assault weapons, including AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, according to the government.
Zapata, 32, was killed, Avila, then-38, was wounded.
The appeals court upheld the conviction on attempted killing of US agents protected under international law, because Avila had diplomatic status in Mexico and the law specifically covers crimes .
But the panel found the murder statute involving killing any officer or employee of the US “does not speak to extraterritorial application one way or the other.” In addition, the court said the presumption that it should apply internationally fails when it is compared to the attempted murder statute that specifically included international coverage.
Thus the convictions for killing Zapata, who was stationed temporarily in Mexico and did not have diplomatic status, did not apply to a crime committed in Mexico.
The appeals court did acknowledge that the New York-based 2nd Circuit and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit have found that the law applies abroad. But the court noted that neither circuit grappled with Supreme Court’s recent admonitions regarding the “presumption against extraterritoriality.”
Garcia Sota and Quezada Pina were convicted in July 2017 and sentenced to life prison terms. They will be resentenced by US District Judge Royce Lamberth.
Five other defendants previously pleaded guilty to federal charges in the case.
Judge Stephen Williams wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Robert Wilkins and David Sentelle.
Case: US v. Garcia Sota, No. 17-3091