On May 19, 2023, Virgilio Aguilar Méndez, an 18-year-old Indigenous-Maya farmworker, was eating and talking to his mother on the phone outside of his Super 8 motel room in St. Augustine, Florida, where he was staying with three other farmworkers. He was working to send money to his family in Guatemala. St. Johns County police Sergeant Michael Kunovich approached Aguilar Méndez and described him to the dispatcher as a “suspicious Hispanic male” according to an ABC News reporter who reviewed the body camera and audio of the incident.
As Kunovich began to question Aguilar Méndez, who speaks the Mayan language Mam, the young man couldn’t understand the questions and started apologizing. He expressed multiple times that he did not speak English and that he was residing in the motel.
Kunovich started searching the teenager for weapons, according to the Florida Times-Union. Startled, the confused 5-foot-4, 115-pound teen resisted. During the eight minute struggle, Kunovich called two other deputies to assist him. They pushed and pinned Aguilar Méndez to the ground, held him in a chokehold, and stunned him with his taser six times in two minutes.
Five minutes after they handcuffed the teenager and put him in a patrol car, Kunovich collapsed and was transported to a hospital where he died. Medical examiners found this to be cardiac arrest and ruled Kunovich’s death to be by natural causes. The ABC reporter, who obtained a copy of Kunovich’s autopsy report, wrote that it said, “These cardiac changes, while recent, predate the struggle with the subject. The circumstances do not fully meet the criteria for a homicide manner of death.”
Still, the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida charged Aguilar Méndez with aggravated murder, which is punishable by life in prison.
In the time after Kunovich’s death, St. John County Sheriff Robert Hardwick held a press conference in which he said that Aguilar Méndez was stopped because he was trespassing and that he had pulled a knife on Kunovich. After the press conference, body camera footage was released showing that a small pocket knife was found in his pants pocket after he was handcuffed was never pulled on Kunovich. Aguilar Méndez said the knife was “para sandía,” or “for watermelon,” alluding to his job.
The teen has been held without bail for eight months, even after circuit judge R. Lee Smith in December found him incompetent to stand trial because he does not understand English or Spanish and is unable to understand the criminal justice system, the Times-Union reported. The prosecution disagreed and the judge said he needed “more time to mull the complicated issues.” Since then, the public defender’s office filed an amended motion to set bond, which would ask for him to be released, and is expected to file a motion to dismiss the charges soon, said Phillip Arroyo, Aguilar Méndez’s lawyer.
“This is a great injustice. It is a violation of his constitutional and civil rights, which, contrary to popular belief, also protect undocumented immigrants,” Arroyo told ScheerPost. “Although this case has nothing to do with immigration, our client’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure was violated that day, in addition to being a victim of excessive force.”
Arroyo also has stated to the ABC reporter that the state would have to prove that Aguilar Méndez knew the officer had a heart condition and did something negligent that caused his death.
According to a report from the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance, “Immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are likely to be victimized far more often than native-born U.S. citizens,” even though they are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born citizens.
In addition, the U.S. has a diverse population in which more than 67 million people, or one in five, speak a language other than English. An estimated 25 million people in the United States have limited English proficiency. Scholars and advocates of criminal justice reform have questioned if law enforcement is doing enough to provide proper resources to ensure language services for those who need it.
Arroyo urges people to sign the Change.org petition to free Aguilar Méndez, created on Jan. 3 by Mariana Blanco of the nonprofit The Guatemalan-Maya Center. The petition calls for Aguilar Méndez’s immediate release and charges to be dropped, and is to Governor Ron DeSantis and 7th circuit state attorney, RJ Larizza. It has generated over 549,000 signatures since it was started.
“If Virgilio is convicted and sentenced to prison for this incident, it will create an extremely dangerous precedent in this country; because if a police officer dies from a heart attack during a police-citizen encounter, anyone in this country can be charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for that officer’s death,” reads the petition.
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