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Jurors unanimously rejected genocide

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A jury that convicted a Kansas man of lying to immigration officers about his whereabouts during the 1994 Rwandan genocide also unanimously agreed that he had no role in the mass killings, two jurors told The Associated Press on Friday.

“We didn’t think the prosecution did a very good job,” juror Richard Shain said. “They put all their eggs in the genocide basket, and it didn’t prove out.”

The comments by the jurors provide a first glimpse into the deliberations in a case prosecutors have said was the first in the nation requiring proof of genocide.

Lazare Kobagaya, 84, of Topeka was convicted Tuesday of one count of lying to immigration officials about his whereabouts when he filled out his visa application.

The jury deadlocked 10-2 to convict on a separate count regarding whether Kobagaya lied during citizenship proceedings. Bill Nelson, the other juror interviewed by AP, said that was because two people were adamant prosecutors failed to prove criminal intent when the elderly immigrant filled out some citizenship paperwork.

“All they proved (was) that he was there in 1994, and that was all they could prove,” Nelson said. “They couldn’t prove he was in on any killing, looting or burning.”

The jury found that Kobagaya lied on his visa application to move to the U.S. when he wrote that from 1993 until 1995, he was in his native Burundi. But jurors rejected the allegation that he lied when he said he didn’t engage in genocide.

“We know he didn’t physically participate, but the accusation was essentially that he was trying to incite people and stuff like that — and we really didn’t think that had ever been proven,” Shain said.

Kobagaya’s attorney said the juror comments helped underscore the defense’s position.

“We are pleased to learn that the jury believed what we knew all along: Lazare Kobagaya is innocent,” defense attorney Kurt Kerns said in an email.

The Justice Department said in a statement it appreciated the service of the jurors, who determined Kobagaya was guilty of visa fraud.

“As in any case, the government presents the facts and evidence it believes supports its allegation and ultimately a jury determines a defendants’ guilt or innocence,” the department said in an email. “Generally speaking, we take seriously our obligations to enforce our criminal laws and to ensure that human rights violators are not granted safe haven in this country.”

Shain said jurors generally felt there was a lot of money wasted in prosecuting Kobagaya.

The defense team did a good job of instilling reasonable doubt and knocking aside those allegations, Shain said. The fact the government’s witnesses were admitted killers was expected and was not a factor in the jury’s decision, he said.

“It is hard to explain, it just didn’t come off as being believable,” Shain said of the government’s genocide allegations.

Had prosecutors put as much effort on proving falsification of immigration documents, the jury could have been swayed in that direction, Shain said. He was among the majority who wanted to convict on both counts for lying on immigration documents.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot declared a mistrial on the one count over which jurors deadlocked, and prosecutors have not said whether they will seek a retrial.

Nelson, who voted with the majority for a conviction on that count, said he sat through the whole trial wondering how much the government was spending on the prosecution.

“After everything was over, I asked the judge and he told me the government had spent at least a million dollars, and then he informed me that Kobagaya had appointed attorneys.”

Government and defense attorneys have traveled to Rwanda with their investigators, translators and a court reporter to take depositions. Taxpayers also are picking up the tab for all defense costs for Kobagaya, who has two court-appointed attorneys. At least 45 foreign witnesses were brought to the United States, although not all testified. Each foreign witness was paid $96 a day over more than six weeks they remained in the United States.

The count on which jurors deadlocked had to do with his citizenship application. On that count, prosecutors alleged Kobagaya made four false statements when asked whether he ever persecuted anyone, committed a crime for which he was not arrested, gave false information to immigration officials or lied to gain entry to the United States. Jurors deadlocked on whether any of those statements were false.

One holdout juror believed Kobagaya didn’t understand English well enough when he filled out the paperwork, Nelson said. The other juror felt Kobagaya was innocent and felt the government didn’t dwell on the paperwork allegations enough.

“The biggest thing with people was the intent,” Shain said.

Most jurors had wanted to return a guilty verdict on that count because the evidence showed “a pattern of what he was willing to do” in order to bring family members into the United States.

On some documents, he falsely represented to authorities that his grandchildren were his son and daughter. Other evidence showed Kobagaya also tried to get one of his married sons into the United States by urging him to tell authorities that he had never been married and that the mother of his child had died, when in fact the son was married and his wife was still alive.

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