Man Gets 50 Years for Teen's Slaying

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; 7:03 PM

A 21-year-old Montgomery County man whose criminal case helped trigger new police policies in Montgomery Count regarding illegal immigration was sentenced to 50 years in prison Thursday for killing a 14-year-old honor student aboard a transit bus last year.

"This was an absolutely appropriate sentence," said John McCarthy, Montgomery County's state's attorney. "Hector Hernandez killed one teenager and shot and wounded two others."

What also made Hernandez's case noteworthy was when authorities said he was in the country illegally, and court records showed that he had been in police custody before the bus shooting. Proponents of using local police to crack down on illegal immigration pounced on the case as evidence that officers should make immigration checks for all people they arrest or come in contact with.

Hernandez was charged in October 2008 with possessing a knife and threatening a student at Northwood High School. But his immigration status went unnoticed and he was released from custody, authorities later said. Had it been checked, advocates for local enforcement said, Hernandez could have been detained for possible deportation.

In November, Hernandez fatally shot Tai Lam, a popular teenager whose death jarred fellow students. About the same time, other suspects arrested for violent crimes in Montgomery also had questionable immigration status.

In early 2009, Montgomery police changed their long-standing policy of not asking those in custody about their immigration status -- a policy based on concerns that if residents with questionable immigration status fear officers, they will be less willing to help as witnesses and crime victims. Such cooperation is crucial for keeping neighborhoods safe.

Under the new policy, officials tried to strike a balance. Montgomery police now report to immigration the names of all suspects arrested for crimes of violence or certain handgun violations.

Still, as both sides point out, the new policy would not have applied to Hernandez's knife arrest. To advocates for harsher local enforcement of immigration laws, that's proof that the policy needs to apply to a broader array of crimes.

To those on the other side of the debate, though, going down that path would drive a wedge between police and residents and ultimately make the county less safe.

They say that the real impact of the Hernandez case, when it comes to the illegal immigration debate, is how it was used to cast Latinos as scapegoats for the broader problem of violent crime.

Audrey Creighton, a defense attorney who represented Hernandez, has a heavily weighted Latino client base. She said Hispanics do not commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime in the county.

"I think it [the Hernandez case] was used as a mechanism to create the argument that Hispanics are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime," Creighton said.

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