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The Story of Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez: Charges Dropped Against Guatemalan Migrant Who Was a Victim of Racial Profiling

The Story of Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez: Charges Dropped Against Guatemalan Migrant Who Was a Victim of Racial Profiling

Prosecutors have dropped the aggravated manslaughter case against an indigenous Guatemalan migrant, Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez, in connection with the death of St. Johns County police sergeant Michael Kunovich. This decision comes after months of national outrage sparked by police body cam footage capturing the tragic encounter. 

According to the New York Post, the incident unfolded when Sergeant Kunovich approached Aguilar-Mendez, then 18 years old, near a motel where he was staying with fellow farm workers. Kunovich deemed Aguilar-Mendez a suspicious “Hispanic male” and proceeded to question him in English. Upon learning about the case, many people saw this as a clear case of racial profiling.  

Aguilar-Mendez, who speaks limited Spanish and primarily communicates in the Mam language, one of several Mayan languages in Guatemala, struggled to comprehend the officer’s commands. The situation escalated when Kunovich attempted to pat him down for weapons, leading to a physical altercation involving two additional officers. 

Tragically, Kunovich suffered a fatal heart attack during the struggle, casting a shadow over the subsequent legal proceedings. Aguilar-Mendez was ruled unfit to stand trial due to language barriers and a lack of understanding of the American judicial system and languished in jail for over eight months. 

However, the tide began to turn when the Guatemala Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach enlisted the renowned defense attorney Jose Baez to represent Aguilar-Mendez. Baez, known for his high-profile clients, such as Casey Anthony and Aaron Hernandez, and his advocacy for social justice, vehemently condemned the case as an instance of racial profiling. 

Demanding a speedy trial and leveraging media attention, Baez pushed for the dismissal of charges, citing the inability of prosecutors to substantiate their case. Celebrities such as filmmaker Scott Budnick and social justice advocate Kim Kardashian lent their voices to the cause, amplifying calls for justice. 

In a strategic move, Baez insisted on courtroom cameras, a decision that likely influenced prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges to avoid further scrutiny. The Guatemala Maya Center mobilized support through a national petition, garnering nearly 600,000 signatures calling for Aguilar-Mendez’s release. 

What’s Next for Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez?

Aguilar-Mendez still faces an immigration hold pending resolution of his separate immigration case. As per WLRN, Aguilar-Mendez is under an “immigration detainer,” which means that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE has “48 hours to pick him up.” 

Civil attorney Phillip Arroyo said that he is most likely to be automatically released if he is not picked up within 48 hours, as reported by WLRN.  

Moving forward, the Guatemala Maya Center intends to provide Aguilar-Mendez with housing and support, ensuring he is welcomed into a supportive community. This case underscores broader issues of racial profiling and the challenges faced by marginalized communities in navigating the criminal justice system.

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