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Gay Border Guard Acquitted In Beating Case


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Gay Border Guard Acquitted In Beating Case

by The Associated Press

Posted: September 8, 2005 9:00 pm ET

(Buffalo, New York) A Homeland Security officer was found not guilty Thursday of beating a female Chinese tourist.

Jurors deliberated about five hours over two days before acquitting Robert Rhodes, a Customs and Border Protection officer, of a single federal count of violating the civil rights of Zhao Yan, 38, a businesswoman from Tianjin, China, who was touring Niagara Falls.

The case provoked anger in China after pictures of Zhao, her face swollen from pepper spray and her eyes and forehead bruised, were widely published after the incident last July.

Defense lawyer Steven Cohen accused the U.S. government on Thursday of prosecuting Rhodes to protect delicate U.S.-Chinese relations. Cohen said Rhodes was an easy target because he was openly gay and had complained about discrimination on the job.

Despite that, Cohen said, Rhodes would like to return to the job he has held for 17 years.

``Rob is a patriot and he loves this country,'' the lawyer said.

Rhodes was not immediately available to comment because of concerns for his safety. Cohen said he received a tip Saturday from a woman of Chinese origin that Rhodes' life would be in danger should he be cleared. It was one of numerous threats Rhodes has received, the lawyer said.

``The threat was if a not guilty (verdict) was reached, interested persons would kill him upon emergence from the courthouse,'' Cohen said. ``I don't know if the threat had any credibility but the marshals are taking it seriously.''

Jurors left U.S. District Court without commenting.

Zhao, who testified during the trial and is pursuing a $10 million US lawsuit against the U.S. government, was not in the courtroom for the verdict.

Government prosecutors claimed Rhodes used excessive force by slamming Zhao's head into pavement and striking her with his knee after pepper-spraying her at a Niagara Falls inspection station in July 2004.

Rhodes told investigators he believed Zhao and two companions might have been associated with a drug suspect who had just been caught and that the women ran when ordered inside. He said he followed proper Customs and Border Protection procedure in subduing the struggling woman.

He faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

``The jury did a great job for their country,'' Cohen said. ``They reaffirmed a law enforcement officer's right to protect himself and the right to be able to do what is necessary to do their job.''

Cohen said border officers throughout the country had adopted an unofficial policy against using any measure of force against a suspect.

``People who don't even know Officer Rhodes would say, `Look what happened to Rocky,''' Cohen said, using Rhodes' nickname.

Cohen said he believed the jury was swayed by the testimony of two of Rhodes' fellow border officers _ who took the stand against him. Although both were critical of the level of force Rhodes used, they indicated Zhao was resisting arrest.

Also key, Cohen said, was medical evidence that showed Zhao sustained what were considered minor injuries that included no fractures or broken bones.

©Associated Press 2005


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