5 questions likely to emerge in the trial of Arizona rancher accused of murder

Was it vigilantism or self-defense or something else all together?

Ultimately, that is what a court must answer in the case of Arizona rancher George Alan Kelly, a man in his mid-70s accused of murdering a Mexican national who trespassed on his property on Jan. 30.

Justice has its work cut out for it.

Hard questions have emerged in this case that has begun to draw national and international attention and now the ire of the Mexican governmentwhich complains the second-degree murder charge is too light.

Why George Alan Kelly’s trial matters

This is a story about the chaos on our national border with Mexico, where illegal crossings have over the past year been spiking and where Washington inertia over decades has led to few solutions.

Caught in the maw of all that dysfunction is George Alan Kelly, who told law enforcement who arrived at his ranch about a mile-and-a-half north of the border and eight miles east of Nogales, that he fired warning shots at a group of men crossing his property.

Also from Boas:Rancher’s trial could become a powder keg

He faces a second-degree murder charge and two charges of aggravated assault because a man from the other side of the border, Mexican citizen Gabriel Cuen Buitimea, 48, was found unarmed and shot in the back on Kelly’s property.

Kelly’s trial is scheduled to begin at 1:30 pm March 6 before Judge Thomas Fink, who was appointed to the Santa Cruz County Superior Court in 2014 by then-Gov. Jan Brewer.

Already attorneys for the prosecution and defense have been duking it out in preliminary filings and hearings, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of what are likely to be key questions and arguments.

1. How much can one see across a football field?

George Alan Kelly listens during his preliminary hearing on Feb. 22, 2023, in Nogales.

As the defense tells it, on the afternoon of Jan. 30, George Kelly and his wife, Wanda, were eating lunch in his ranch home at about 2:30 pm, when George heard a gunshot.

He could see his horse was frightened and then saw a group of men carrying AK-47s moving across his property. The men were dressed in khakis and camouflage and were carrying large backpacks, the defense asserts.

Kelly went onto his porch with a rifle, and soon the leader of the group of trespassers pointed an AK-47 at Kelly, his attorney wrote in a 13-page motion.

Kelly responded with several warning shots “well over the heads” of the men before the group scattered into the desert surrounding his property, the motion read. Kelly’s gun was an AK-47, according to the prosecution.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s detectives found a handful of spent AK-47 shell casings near Kelly’s back porch, The Arizona Republic reported.

They estimated the distance between the spent casings and the area where Buitimea’s body was found was about 120 yards. Other estimates have ranged from 80 to 150 yards.

Roughly the length of a football field.

That was the distance between the rancher and the trespassers moving across his property.

Given the distance, is it possible for a man, let alone a man in his mid-70s, to detect details such as the men were armed, and more specifically that they were armed with AK-47s – coincidentally the same gun the rancher was carrying?

On the flip side, one of the men who had accompanied Buitimea cutting through the ranch and is now a witness for the prosecution told Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Detective Mario Barba he saw Buitimea get shot and came forward after recognizing Kelly from his picture in the news media, according to the Nogales International newspaper.

Again, is it possible to see across the span of a football field a person’s face with such specificity that you could identify them from a newspaper photo?

2. Why is the bullet trajectory upward?

Another likely question to arise will be the upward trajectory of the bullet that struck Buitimea. According to testimony from Jorge Ainza, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department detective who arrested Kelly, the bullet entered Buitimea’s body from the back lower right portion of his ribcage and exited from his left upper chest area, The Republic reports.

Photographs depicting George Kelly’s sprawling 170-acre ranch show property that appears flat. If Kelly shot Buitimea from roughly the length of a football field away, is it likely the bullet would have moved upwards in the victim’s body?

It is certainly possible.

According to the Internet Pathology Laboratory for Medical Education hosted by The University of Utah Eccles Health Sciences Library, a “bullet path may be altered by striking bone or other firm tissues, such that the bullet track may not be linear, and exit wounds may not appear directly opposite entrance wounds.”

3. What did the rancher’s wife see and hear?

Wanda Kelly (George Alan Kelly's wife) leaves Nogales Justice Court on Feb.  22, 2023, in Nogales.

Wanda Kelly (George Alan Kelly’s wife) leaves Nogales Justice Court on Feb. 22, 2023, in Nogales.

Throughout the early testimony, court filings and reporting in this case, we learn that rancher George Kelly heard a gunshot and then saw armed men moving across his property in camo and carrying backpacks.

But what did his wife, Wanda, see and hear? Did she hear a gun shot? Did she ever get a look outside and see any of the people or individuals her husband saw?

4. Why are witness statements inconsistent?

Law enforcement officials have noted in pre-filings that Kelly changed some of the details of his story through Jan. 30. Likewise, Kelly’s attorney, Brenna Larkin, has accused witnesses against her client of making “extremely inconsistent” statements.

Are the changing accounts due to the trauma of events or other reasons, or are they efforts to make emerging facts add up?

5. How did border chaos affect this shooting?

Some reporting and observers have described the Kino Springs area where this shooting took place as relatively quiet. But Border Patrol agents have described it as a “high-crime” area, in particular because of increased drug trafficking, The Republic reports.

One of Kelly’s neighbors told The (UK) Daily Mail that Kelly called US Border Patrol to his property “30 to 40” times in January alone.

These are all questions likely to emerge in the trial.

It is a credit to both the US Border Patrol, Santa Cruz County prosecutors and court and the United States, itself, that we do not easily dismiss the shooting death of a man who was apparently uninvited to our side of the border or uninvited on the Arizona ranch where he died.

Human life is paramount to all others, and civilized society demands answers when human beings are killed. We require justice if they are killed through reckless actions or malicious intent.

The failure of governments to control the flow of immigration can create dangerous situations for private citizens; however, you can’t just shoot someone because they’ve cut across your property.

That’s what makes this case hard and more facts essential.

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at phil.boas@arizonarepublic.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: George Alan Kelly murder trial must answer these 5 key questions

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