As the trial of Scott Warren opened May 29, assistant U.S. attorney Nathaniel Walters insisted “No More Deaths is not on trial; Scott Warren is.”

“This case is not about humanitarian aid,” Walters said.

As it turned out, that was false. The weak federal prosecution amounted to an attempt to assert authority over volunteers who for two decades have worked in the borderlands to try to prevent mounting deaths that resulted from federal border policy.

How else to explain that the prosecutors repeatedly brought up the name of an alleged co-conspirator, Irineo Mujica, but refused to call him as a witness, indict him, or explain why he wasn’t there?

This intent became clear as the days of trial wore on, and the case brought by federal prosecutors seemed strangely empty of damning evidence, for such a high-profile trial.

There was no witness saying, for example, that Warren, a volunteer for the group No More Deaths, knew in advance of the arrival in January 2018 of the two men at a building he helped maintain in Ajo.

There was no email showing Warren tried to evade Border Patrol. There was no text in which Warren coordinated the arrival or departure of the two men, a Salvadoran and a Honduran.

This was not for lack of trying. The government had access to 14,000 pages of emails, texts and phone records.

But they offered no evidence that harboring or conspiring to harbor these men was Warren’s real, hidden intent.

So what was left, in the end, was the government argument that if you give food, water and medical aid to somebody and allow them to hang out for a couple of days without calling the authorities, that is a crime. Not just a crime, a felony. And not just one felony.

Warren was accused of two counts of harboring an illegal alien and one count of conspiracy. He faced a maximum 20 years in prison.

And though a sentence that severe was unlikely, even if he had been convicted, it was clear when Warren spoke after the trial, having received a hung jury on all three counts, that a weight was off his shoulders. He smiled easily but had a serious message.

“Since my arrest in January 2018, at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert,” he said. “We know that’s a minimum number, and many more are out there and have not been found.”

The defense’s case brought out these shocking statistics, the death toll that approaches 3,000 sets of remains in the Sonoran Desert over the last two decades.

But the prosecution increasingly tried to highlight the idea that No More Deaths and other humanitarian aid groups actually oppose federal immigration agents and work against them.

When No More Deaths volunteer Geena Jackson testified, prosecutors asked her if she agreed with the group’s point of view that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished. Her response was, essentially, “Huh?” She didn’t know, and it had nothing to do with Scott Warren’s innocence or guilt.

When volunteer Flannery Shay-Nemirow testified next, Walters asked why she had removed from the Ajo building where Warren was arrested all the information about where No More Deaths had left water. She said she didn’t want Border Patrol getting it, because in the past some agents had been filmed destroying water stashes.

“We fear that Border Patrol destroys our water drops, so we are a little protective of that information,” she said.

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And in her closing argument, assistant U.S. attorney Anna Wright went full-on authoritarian. She told jurors that Warren and No More Deaths try to “thwart Border Patrol at every turn.”

She also accused a witness, present in the courtroom at the trial, of having conspired with Warren — a lazy way for a prosecutor to make a felony accusation, when they actually have the power to pursue indictments.

This, it seemed from their case, is what really bothered Wright and Walters and motivated their pursuit of this weak case. Some of these humanitarian groups, especially No More Deaths, do not bow to the authority of Border Patrol or other federal agents. And yes, they are sometimes hostile to the agency that carried out the policy of pushing migrants farther out into the desert that has led to the deaths. That’s legal.

Despite that, for years, these humanitarian groups in Southern Arizona have coordinated with Border Patrol, coming to agreements about how they will act and interact with each other out in the baking emptiness. And there has been substantial cooperation over the years, with individual agents as well as between the agency and the groups.

One of them has been Humane Borders, which pioneered setting up water stations in the desert. A leader of that group, Joel Smith, told me "The implications if Scott were found guilty were frightening."

"If any contact with a migrant could bring 20 years," he said, "that would destroy the border movement."

Wright knows about this history of coordination between aid groups and Border Patrol. Catherine Gaffney, a No More Deaths volunteer and spokeswoman, told me that Wright attended the last meeting between the group and Border Patrol, which occurred in June 2017.

Those meetings with No More Deaths ended after Warren’s arrest in January 2018.

The battle lines were drawn at that point: The U.S. government was formally against the humanitarians. Scott Warren was just a guy they could make an example of. Or try.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter