(CN) - A man convicted in Arizona for kidnapping a young Honduran and holding him for ransom did not have his rights violated at trial by the admission of details from a phone call he placed to the victim's mother, the 9th Circuit ruled.
A federal jury in Tucson found Jose Antonio Liera-Morales guilty of hostage taking, transportation of an alien for profit, harboring an alien for profit and other charges related to his role in the kidnapping of 18-year-old Franklin Aguilar-Avila, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. He was sentenced to 16 years behind bars.
On appeal in the 9th Circuit, Liera-Morales claimed that U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps had improperly allowed a federal agent to testify about a unrecorded phone call between the alleged kidnappers and Aguilar's mother, from whom they had attempted to extort a ransom in exchange for Aguilar's release.
Liera-Morales argued that the agent's testimony about the call to Sonia Avila, a resident of Houston, violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.
An illegal immigrant himself, Liera-Morales began working for a human-trafficking ring in 2011 to pay off his smuggling fee, according to the 9th Circuit. He allegedly picked up Aguilar and two other immigrants in the desert outside Tucson in December of that year, and took them to a mobile home in the city.
According to the federal agent's testimony at trial, the captor's called Avila in Houston a few days later and demanded money for her son's release, saying that they would kill him if she failed to comply.
That same day, agents in Tucson rescued Aguilar in an undercover sting operation. The Agents found Aguilar lying in the back seat of the truck driven by Liera-Morales.
Judge Zipps allowed the agent's testimony about the telephone call, finding that it did not violate the Confrontation Clause because it was nontestimonial and merely gave an impression of the mother's "excited utterances."
A unanimous appellate panel affirmed on Monday.
"The district court's admission of the agent's testimony recounting Avila's description of the call did not violate the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment because the call was made primarily to address an ongoing emergency and the challenged statements were nontestimonial," wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown for the three-judge panel.
She added that, "In light of the ongoing hostage situation and the risk of grave harm to Aguilar, the challenged statements fall squarely in the emergency category of nontestimonial statements."