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Gay U.S. border
officer acquitted of civil rights charge

Gay U.S. border
officer acquitted of civil rights charge

A gay U.S. border officer was acquitted Thursday of violating a Chinese tourist's civil rights when he pushed her head into the pavement and pepper-sprayed her at the U.S.-Canada border. Government prosecutors claimed that Homeland Security officer Robert Rhodes used excessive force against Zhao Yan, 38, a businesswoman from Tianjin who was touring Niagara Falls in July 2004. Rhodes told investigators he believed the woman might have been associated with a drug suspect and that he ordered her inside the Niagara Falls inspection station but she took off running. He said he followed proper Customs and Border Protection procedure in subduing the struggling woman and denied striking her or slamming her face to the ground while holding her hair. "I feel that I was vindicated and now I can put my life back together," Rhodes said at his attorney's office after leaving the courthouse under the protection of federal marshals. Defense attorney Steven Cohen said Rhodes had received death threats. The case provoked anger in China after pictures of Zhao, her face swollen from pepper spray and her eyes and forehead bruised, were widely published. Defense attorney Steven Cohen accused the U.S. government of prosecuting Rhodes to protect delicate U.S.-Chinese relations, adding that Rhodes was an easy target because he was openly gay and had complained about discrimination on the job. Despite that, Cohen said, Rhodes would like to return to the job he has held for 17 years. "Rob is a patriot, and he loves this country," the lawyer said Thursday. Zhao, who testified during the trial and is pursuing a $10 million lawsuit against the U.S. government, was not in the courtroom for the verdict. An attorney representing her in the civil case said Thursday's verdict would have no impact on the lawsuit. "It's always difficult to convict any officer of the law in this kind of case," Stanley Legan said. He said the standards of proof are different in civil cases and suggested the jurors in the criminal case may have been influenced by the tense atmosphere after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "I think her injuries clearly demonstrate that excessive force was used," Legan said. Cohen said he believed the jury was swayed by the testimony of two of Rhodes's fellow border officers who took the stand against him. Although both were critical of the level of force Rhodes used, they indicated that Zhao resisted arrest. Rhodes could have faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted. (AP)

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