Since Scott Warren’s acquittal on November 20, I’ve been reflecting on the case a lot, especially since I was personally involved in the events at the heart of it. And what I keep coming back to is a very simple thought: The government went after the wrong guy. They thought they were going to nail this sneaky smuggler of “bad hombres.” What they encountered instead was an uncommonly kind man simply devoted to being truly helpful to his brothers and sisters in need. In the end, there was no case they could make against that.
Indeed, Scott’s kindness and compassion shines through every aspect of the case. Let me start with my own experience of him. In the short time I was with him, I was profoundly touched by this gentle, soft-spoken man who deeply believes in the oneness of all life and is tirelessly devoted to saving lives in the desert. Whether he was instructing us volunteers to keep everything legal so that No More Deaths’ work could continue, or sharing a sacred moment of silence with us when we encountered a human skull in the Growler Valley, or helping us process our feelings after that encounter with death, his devotion to his fellow human beings always came through.
I don’t mean to depict Scott as some sort of perfect saint, but in my experience, his degree of compassion is out of the ordinary. This was reflected, for instance, in his testimony throughout the legal process. In a pretrial hearing, he said that for him,
providing humanitarian aid is a sacred act….Based on my spiritual beliefs, I am compelled to act. I’m drawn to act. I have to act when someone is in need.
His compassion extends not only to suffering migrants in the desert, but also to people who don’t share his perspective regarding those migrants. In a statement after he was acquitted, Scott graciously addressed those who wanted a different outcome:
There are others who disagree with our humanitarian work. Some of those folks are in this very courthouse—but they are also our neighbors, friends, and very own family. I understand that they follow a moral compass that guides them to different conclusions about the border than me. And I know that I have much to learn from their perspectives, experiences, and frustrations as well.
His compassion extends as well to his prosecutors. Ryan Devereaux’s excellent article on the trial (all subsequent quotations in this post are from this article) describes his attitude this way:
[Warren] felt a stir of compassion for the government’s lawyers. It’s not that he had wanted them to win, but he did want to understand how they had become so committed to his prosecution. “It’s like, ‘What is going on for them?’” Warren said. “It seemed like they felt deeply dejected and I don’t want to take care of them, but also, what happened that it was like that?”
Having gone through the hell of being a criminal defendant, his compassion even extends to Trump administration officials accused of serious crimes. While of course he doesn’t approve of the things they’ve done, he nonetheless can connect with them on a human level:
When [Warren] looks at stories in the news, the cases of Trump administration associates facing prison time, for example, and he sees people cheering prosecutions and incarceration, he feels something different.
“I can empathize with being a defendant and knowing what that’s like,” Warren said. “You have the power of the state crashing down on you.”
What comes shining through, then, is the example of a man who is truly committed to cultivating love and compassion for literally everyone. And my impression is that this example impacted many people involved in the legal proceedings. For example:
It impacted his own lawyers. Greg Kuykendall and Amy Knight normally work on death penalty cases with defendants who don’t get much sympathy. After the case had concluded, Knight noted that she had never before worked with someone who is “publicly beloved.” It was, she said, “just a very, very different experience.”
It impacted the jurors. Of course, this is reflected in their acquittal, but also in comments they made after the trial. One said, “He seemed like a humanitarian that was just trying to help. He seemed very kind and not like he was trying to harbor somebody or do anything illegal at all.” Another said, “I think we all agreed, what he and these people do is fantastic,” and added that in the end, it all came down to “what we thought was in his heart and in his head.”
And it seems that it may have even impacted the judge. In addition to presiding over this case, Judge Raner Collins announced his verdict on Scott’s earlier misdemeanor case, in which he was charged with leaving humanitarian aid supplies on protected public lands and driving on restricted roads on those lands. Throughout all these cases, Scott’s lawyers have based their defense on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that protects many actions that are based on sincere religious conviction. Judge Collins’s main job in this case was to rule on the validity of this defense.
In short, on the humanitarian aid charge, Collins’s verdict upheld Scott’s religious freedom defense. In other words, Scott and his lawyers successfully demonstrated that helping others in need is such a spiritual imperative for Scott (remember his statement above that humanitarian aid is a “sacred act” that he feels compelled to do) that to prevent him from doing it would be a violation of his religious freedom.
This is a true milestone, one that some legal experts say will likely have an even bigger legal impact on future cases than the felony acquittal. The issue of how to interpret the RFRA law and what acts it protects has been a subject of intense debate since the law was enacted. Up to now, this law has been used to uphold actions based on conservative Christian convictions, such as (in the Hobby Lobby case) a corporation’s refusal to pay for mandated health insurance coverage for contraception.
Scott’s case, though, is the first in which this law has been used to uphold the work of a progressive social activist. This has the potential to benefit countless spiritually based humanitarian aid workers down the line. Of course, the right to provide humanitarian aid is already guaranteed by laws other than the RFRA. But this ruling opens up one more line of defense for those who are persecuted for the simple act of helping others.
So yeah, I think they went after the wrong guy. I think that in the end, Scott’s sincere commitment to love and compassion, rooted in a spiritual conception of the oneness of all life, shone through so brightly that it shined away everything that seemed to stand in its way. Scott, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the impact you’ve had on so many people, including me. I only knew you for a week, but you’ve changed my life forever. May you continue to bless the lives of everyone you encounter with sacred acts of kindness.