By Mark R. Day
Jurors in the Pima County courtroom in Tucson wept during the final moments of the murder trial of anti-immigration activist Shawna Forde. That’s when Gina Gonzalez, the mother of the 9-year-old victim Brisenia Flores, described how the girl begged an assailant not to shoot her.
Also killed during the last year’s home invasion in Aviaca, Arizona, was Brisenia’s father, Raul. Forde was found guilty Feb. 14 of first degree murder. After a brief deliberation, the jury also ruled that she was eligible for the death penalty, since she was the mastermind of the murders and botched robbery attempt in the small town, 11 miles from the Mexican border.
Jason Bush, 36, the alleged gunman, and Albert Gaxiola, 44, an accomplice, await their own trials for Flores’ slayings, set for March and June, respectively.
Prosecutors charged that Forde recruited the two men to rob Flores because she suspected he was a drug smuggler and she needed funds for her Minutemen American Defense organization.
Forde denied being at the murder scene, but cell phone calls and text messages told a different story. Gina Gonzalez’ jewelry was found in her possession when she was arrested, and Jason Bush’s blood was found at the Flores’s home and in the getaway car.
The Forde trial attracted sparse media attention, despite the heinous nature of the murders and the fact that Brisenia Flores was nine, the same age as Christina Green, the Tucson girl gunned down by Jared Loughner on Jan. 8. As one blogger put it, “The Forde trial points out the Grand Canyon sized chasm in terms of the level of attention that’s garnered by two 9-year-olds and the values placed on their lives.”
The most comprehensive coverage of the trial came from reporter Kim Smith’s daily coverage in Tucson’s Arizona Star, her insightful blogs from the courthouse, and her jail house interview with Shawna Forde.
Terri Greene Sterling of the Daily Beast also conducted a jail interview with Forde after the conviction. Forde maintained her innocence and said she felt sympathy for Brisenia’s mother, Gina Gonzalez. But she added, “People shouldn’t deal drugs if they have kids.” No evidence of drugs was found at the Flores home.
The Los Angeles Times gave the Forde verdict a scant 11 column inches, while the New York Times digested it in a news brief, and the Washington Post ignored it all together. Progressive pundits such as Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, and Lawrence O’Donnell also took a pass on the story.
CNN’s Gary Tuchman did a lengthy report on the Anderson Cooper show Feb.14, but emphasized that Forde had been exiled from the Minutemen Civil Defense Committee (MCDC) for being “emotionally unstable.”
But the website Crooks and Liars pointed out that Shawna Forde’s group was hardly a Minuteman offshoot—since most Minutemen groups operate independently, without a central command structure. In fact, because of the Aviaca killings, the largest group, the Minutemen Civil Defense Committee was disbanded by its president, Al Garza.
Furthermore, Forde served as a spokesperson for the right wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (F.A.I.R.), labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Forde also had close ties with Minutemen leader Jim Gilchrist until the time she was arrested.
Latino advocacy groups are outraged that political figures have not spoken out about the Aviaca killings. “Latinos are watching, and if people and parties want the Latino vote, they will have to speak out against things like this,” said Joaquin Guerra, campaign director for Presente.org.
Guerra and other observers note the widespread publicity generated by the murder last year of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, allegedly by a Mexican drug trafficker. Many believe the Krentz killing directly led to the passage of Arizona’s SB1070, widely criticized as discriminatory toward Mexicans. But the death of Brisenia Flores passed by, say Latino leaders, with barely a murmur from Arizona politicians.
Guerra said that Brisenia’s murder serves as an example of what happens when hateful rhetoric “goes unchecked and is legitimated as serious policy issues.”
Meanwhile, reporter / blogger David Niewert of Crooks and Liars argues that despite the sensational aspects of the Flores’ killings, mainstream editors and producers decided that the story “ran against the grain of narratives they use to construct our national discourse. So they simply ignored it.”
That narrative, says Niewert, interprets events such as the Aviaca murders as “isolated incidents” not connected to a climate of hatred and fear against immigrants coming from border vigilante groups such as the Minutemen, conservative politicians, right wing talk show hosts and anti-immigrant think tanks such as F.A.I.R.
Back in Tucson, the jury at the Pima County Courthouse seemed unfazed by this debate, mainly conducted on the blogosphere. The jurors convicted Shawna Forde of eight counts, including murder, attempted murder, burglary, robbery and aggravated assault charges.
“This jury was not political, neither pro-immigrant nor anti-immigrant,” human rights attorney Isabel Garcia told Univision TV. “They looked at the evidence, and it was very, very strong.”