San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
National parks

Costa Rican park ranger appeals attempted murder conviction

The Costa Rican park ranger convicted of the 2009 shooting death of a suspected turtle-egg poacher was back in court last week. The defense team for park ranger Mauricio Steller Fallas appealed his conviction and 12-year prison sentence for attempted murder Thursday.

Steller’s lawyer, Luis Zamora Bolaños, lodged the appeal at a court in Ciudad Cortés while a group of environmentalists and Environment Ministry employees demonstrated in front of the courthouse in support of their fellow park ranger.

Zamora said that his client acted in self-defense and as a result the charges should have been dismissed. The appeal argues that there were several procedural errors in the prosecution’s case that invalidate the trial.

Steller told The Tico Times that he hopes that the judges accept the argument that he acted in self-defense. “It was the only option for me. That was all I could do in response to the poacher’s attack,” he said.

Pending his appeal, Steller is back at work. He is not in jail. But Steller had to forfeit his passport and is required to sign in with the court every two weeks, according to precautionary measures issued by the court.

Besides the attempted murder appeal, Steller is also awaiting a decision on a separate criminal case for possession and sale of drugs. Steller’s original lawyer, Juan Diego Castro, said he would no longer represent the park ranger after the drug charge came to light.

Roberto Molina Ugalde, head of the Environment Ministry’s union, said on Friday that the result of this case would have far-reaching effects for how park rangers work and protect the country’s natural heritage.

“All park rangers will be afraid of facing poachers, illegal loggers or hunters. Sending Mauricio to jail would be a terrible precedent for Costa Rica’s legal system and for the protection of its natural resources,” he said.

Steller and other park rangers could be waiting quite a while for an answer. Appellate court typically take between six to twelve month to issue rulings on criminal cases.

The case

The incident that led to Steller’s conviction occurred on Sept. 18, 2009, when the park ranger found a man named Alix Castro Chavarría walking along with his wife, his father and a friend at Playa Carate, a South Pacific beach near Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula.

Steller said in court that he asked Castro to let him review his backpack because he suspected the man was carrying turtle eggs. Instead the group allegedly reacted by attacking him and his partner with machetes. “That’s why I was forced to fire my gun at the man, it was self-defense,” he said.

The park ranger said his partner, identified with the last name Chavarría, also tried to shoot his gun but it got jammed. Chavarría was acquitted during the same trial.

The prosecution called six witnesses who testified that Steller tried to take Castro’s backpack and that the man was not carrying a machete.

Castro did not die from the shot, altough he was paralyzed in 70 percent of his body. He died four years later “from various health complications,” Steller’s defense claimed at the trial.

Judges last Sept. 4 concluded that neither Castro or the other people with him that day committed any crime and that Steller’s actions were not legal. Prosecutors had sought a conviction for first-degree murder but judges convicted him for attempted murder instead.

In their ruling judges said public officials should always act according to their job’s regulations and that they can not search people’s belongings without a valid reason.

Contact L. Arias at larias@ticotimes.net

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Ken Morris

This is a crucial sentence:

“The prosecution called six witnesses who testified that Steller tried to take Castro’s backpack and that the man was not carrying a machete.”

To date I have only read that Steller was merely doing his job, during the course of which he was forced to shoot, he claims in self-defense. But if six witnesses say that Castro didn’t even have a machete, that directly and seemingly overwhelmingly contradicts Steller’s self-defense claim. Steller may or may not have been acting appropriately by trying to take Castro’s backpack, but when that didn’t succeed, there was probably other protocol that Steller should have followed that didn’t include shooting. He might for example have followed the suspects and called for backup.

I don’t mind this case being appealed, just found it hard to believe that a ranger was railroaded for merely doing his job. It now looks like the facts make this case a much closer call.

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