I got a couple of e-mails from readers who were appalled by this situation:
Just a few months ago, this ranch was known as Camp Thunderbird, the headquarters of a paramilitary group that promised to use force to keep illegal immigrants from sneaking across the border with Mexico.
Now, in a turnabout, the 70-acre property about two miles from the border is being given to two immigrants whom the group caught trying to enter the United States illegally.
The land transfer is being made to satisfy judgments in a lawsuit in which the immigrants had said that Casey Nethercott, the owner of the ranch and a former leader of the vigilante group Ranch Rescue, had harmed them. . . .
The two immigrants . . .accused Mr. Nethercott of threatening them and of hitting Mr. Mancía with a pistol, charges that Mr. Nethercott denied. The immigrants also said the group gave them cookies, water and a blanket and let them go after an hour or so. . . .
A few observations:
1. According to the story, Nethercott didn't defend the lawsuit against him, "so the judge issued [a] default judgment of $850,000" against him; the property was seized to satisfy the judgment. Whatever the merits of a lawsuit, you can't just refuse to appear in court. If you do, you'll essentially be ruled to have forfeited — the other side will get a default judgment, and unless you can get it set aside by showing some good reason for the default, it's as if you'd lost on the merits. That's true whatever you're accused of, and it makes it harder for me to sympathize with Nethercott.
2. Nethercott was not convicted of attacking the illegal aliens; the jury deadlocked on that. But a failure to convict doesn't dispose of a civil claim: Because conviction in criminal cases requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and liability in civil cases generally requires only proof by a preponderance of the evidence (a much lower standard), it may well be perfectly proper for a criminal jury to acquit (or deadlock) and for a civil claim to nonetheless prevail. (Recall that this is what happened in O.J. Simpson's killing of Ron Goldman.)
3. One could argue that illegal aliens shouldn't get a damages award when the circumstances flowed partly from their own crime — illegal entry into the country. But while I'm not an expert on this corner of tort law, my sense is that this isn't the law. Perhaps tort lawyers can clarify this for me.
Some states bar criminal trespassers from recovering damages flowing from the property owner's negligence, and possibly even the property owner's deliberate acts taken in self-defense. But I'm not sure this would apply to people whose crime is illegal presence in the country, rather than illegal entry into someone's house. And in any event, I doubt that this immunity applies to a defendant's deliberate acts not taken in self-defense, for instance if I catch a trespasser and then proceed to beat him with no self-defense justification.
4. Perhaps Nethercott really didn't beat the illegal aliens, or perhaps he was acting in self-defense — but if he refuses to come to court to give his side of the case, we can't really figure that out.
5. I'm not sure whether it's good that the illegal aliens might get "visas that are available to immigrants who are the victims of certain crimes and who cooperate with the authorities"; but I don't know what the relevant rules are, and what their chances of getting the visas are.
I can see why one might want to have such rules in some situations, in order to encourage illegal aliens to come forward to complain about crimes. I can also see why one might not want to have such rules, in order to keep illegal aliens from profiting — by getting visas, regardless of whether they also get damages awards — from their illegal entry into the U.S. I really can't speak to this without knowing more about what the immigration laws here are.